Deal calls for troop pullback in Iraq

US says pact still needs final approvals

By Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Robert Burns
Associated Press / August 21, 2008
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BAGHDAD - Iraqi and US negotiators have completed a draft security agreement that would see American troops leave Iraqi cities as soon as June 30, Iraqi and American officials said yesterday.

In Washington, a senior military official said the deal is acceptable to the US side, subject to formal approval by President Bush. It also requires final acceptance by Iraqi leaders, and some members of Iraq's Cabinet oppose certain provisions.

The agreement spells out that US troops would leave Iraqi cities by next summer, but it was unclear yesterday how it deals with the issue of a final pullout. The Iraqi government has pushed for a specific date - most likely the end of 2011 - by which all American forces would depart the country.

After leaving the cities, the US troops would initially be sent to bases in other parts of the country to make them less visible but still available to assist Iraqi forces as needed.

Also completed was a companion draft document, known as a strategic framework agreement, spelling out in broad terms the political, security, and economic relationships between Iraq and the United States, the senior military official said. The official discussed the draft accords on the condition that he not be identified by name because the deals have not been publicly announced and are not final.

The two governments are referring to the draft security accord as a memorandum of understanding. The agreement must be approved by the Iraqi Parlia ment, in recess until next month.

In Baghdad, Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, cautioned that the draft fell short of a final agreement because it had yet to be approved by the political leadership in either country. "Both sides have reached the conclusion that there is no need for any further negotiations. A draft agreement is there. It is now a political decision," he said.

He declined to say whether it addresses timelines for a withdrawal of troops or immunity for American service members.

The Bush administration has resisted committing firmly to a specific date for a final troop pullout, insisting that it would be wiser to set a target linked to the attainment of certain agreed-upon goals. These goals would reflect not only security improvements, but also progress on the political and economic fronts.

The senior US military official said the draft is consistent with US objectives, which include setting a "time horizon" rather than a firm date for the future withdrawal of American forces.

A second senior US official suggested that there would be a series of timetables set, linked to conditions on the ground, and that the draft worked out by the negotiators required more talks at higher levels of the two governments.

"The improved security in Iraq allows us to have conversations with the Iraqis about setting goals for more American troops to come home and for the Iraqis to take the lead in more combat missions," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "Any dates in an agreement will be based on conditions on the ground, because we do not want to lose the hard-fought gains of the surge."

The draft agreement addresses issues that are key points of contention in the US presidential election - in particular the future troop presence in Iraq. Senator John McCain, the presumptive GOP candidate, is opposed to setting any timetable for withdrawals; his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, says he would bring all combat troops home from Iraq within 16 months.

An Iraqi official who was involved in the protracted negotiations said a compromise had been worked out on the contentious issue of whether to provide US troops immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, but he did not give details. In Washington, the senior military official said the draft agreement reflects the US position that the United States must retain exclusive legal jurisdiction over its troops in Iraq.

While Iraqi negotiators signed off on the draft, another official close to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the country's political leadership objected to parts of the text, including the immunity provision.

"There are different points of view," he said. He would not elaborate and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The security deal is to govern the status of the more than 140,000-strong US military force after the UN Security Council mandate for its mission expires at the end of this year.

The Shi'ite-led government has been pressing for some sort of timetable for the departure of US troops, saying that is essential to win legislators' approval.

The decision to refer the agreement to parliament followed demands by the country's most powerful Shi'ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, that any formula to keep US troops on Iraqi soil - even for a limited period - must have broad political support.

Bush long had refused to accept any timetable for bringing US troops home. Last month, however, he and Maliki agreed to set a "general time horizon" for ending the US mission.

Bush's shift to a broad timetable was seen as a move to speed agreement on the security pact.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Maliki had a long and "very difficult" phone conversation about the situation early this month during which she pressed the Iraqi leader for more flexibility, particularly on immunity, one US senior official said at the time.

Material from The New York Times News Service was used in this report.

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