BAGHDAD - A proposed U.S.-Iraq security agreement is shaping up as a major political battle between the United States and Iran, as the debate over the future of troops here intensifies ahead of the fall U.S. presidential election.

The agreement, which Washington and Baghdad hope to finish in midsummer, is likely to be among the issues discussed this weekend when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is due to visit Iran, his second trip there in a year.

Ahead of the visit, his party sought to calm worries by insisting that the deal would not allow foreign troops to use Iraq as a ground to invade another country, a clear reference to Iranian fears of a U.S. attack.

For their part, congressional Democrats have urged the Bush administration not to bypass Congress, which they believe should approve any deal. They fear a long-term security deal with Iraq, if it committed the United States to protecting Iraq, could make it difficult for the next president to withdraw U.S. forces.

But the toughest words have come from Iraqi politicians, especially those loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the anti-American cleric whose militiamen fought U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad until a May truce ended seven weeks of fighting.

A lawmaker from Maliki's party told reporters yesterday that the Iraqis and the Americans are far apart on the security agreement. He said negotiations "are at a standstill, and the Iraqi side is studying its options."

"The Americans have some demands that the Iraqi government regards as infringing on its sovereignty," lawmaker Haidar al-Abadi said. "This is the main dispute, and if the dispute is not settled, I frankly tell you there will not be an agreement."

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo described talks on the pact as "active" and said that "texts are very much in flux."

The deal would establish a long-term security relationship between Iraq and the United States, and a parallel agreement providing a legal basis to keep U.S. troops in Iraq after the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.

Supporters believe the deal would help assure Iraq's Arab neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states, that Iraq's Shiite-led government would not become a satellite of Shiite-dominated Iran as the American military role here fades. But public critics in Iraq worry the deal will lock in American military, economic and political domination of the country.

Abadi said major stumbling blocks included the future status of U.S. military bases and American use of airspace over Iraq.

Most Iraqis view the U.S. insistence that American troops continue to enjoy immunity under Iraqi law as an infringement on national sovereignty. U.S. officials maintain they respect Iraqi sovereignty and are not seeking permanent bases.

Although opposition has spread beyond the Sadrists, the role of the militant cleric is a matter of special concern for the Americans. Sadr is believed to be living in the Iranian city of Qom, and U.S. officials believe Iran has armed and trained Shiite militiamen. Iran denies the allegation.

That has sharpened the Iran-vs.-U.S. aspect of the issue. U.S. officials increasingly see the criticism as driven by Iran through Sadr, who has long opposed the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Concerned that Sadr was scoring political points, mainstream Shiite and Sunni politicians began to speak out against the proposed deal, too, distancing themselves from the deliberations for fear of being seen as selling out to the Americans.

All that puts pressure on Maliki, also a Shiite, as he tries to maintain ties to Iran while ensuring his support from the United States.

Maliki needs to persuade the Iranians to rein in Shiite extremists but also assure them that security ties to the United States would not threaten the Islamic Republic.

U.S. Nabs Bombing Suspects

U.S. troops

yesterday apprehended two bombing suspects linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq and a Shiite militia leader in separate raids, the U.S. military said.

One al-Qaeda in Iraq

suspect is believed to have overseen security for the group's branch in Mosul, a northern city. Mosul is one of the terror network's last urban strongholds and

the target of a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation.

The other suspect

was apprehended in Tikrit,

a Sunni Arab city south

of Mosul. He allegedly helped organize

suicide bombings.

The suspected Shiite

militia leader and five associates surrendered in Kut, southeast of Baghdad.

The leader was accused

of links to the killing of Iraqis and U.S. troops,

the U.S. military said.

- Associated Press