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U.S., Iraqis near pact

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD - The United States has agreed to remove combat troops from Iraqi cities by next June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011 if conditions in Iraq remain relatively stable, according to Iraqi and American officials involved in negotiating a security accord governing American forces there.

The withdrawal timetable, which Bush administration officials called "aspirational goals" rather than fixed dates, are contained in the draft of an agreement that must still be approved by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders before it goes before Iraq's fractious parliament. It has the support of the Bush administration, American and Iraqi officials said.

American officials stressed repeatedly that meeting the timetables depended on the security situation in Iraq, where sectarian killings and attacks on American troops have declined sharply over the past year from the peak levels in 2006 and 2007. Iraqi officials, who have pushed for an even tighter target date for the United States to end its military operations, could also end up rejecting the draft agreement.

Even so, the accord indicates that the Bush administration is prepared to commit the United States to ending most combat operations in Iraq in less than a year, a much shorter time frame than seemed possible, politically or militarily, even a few months ago. President Bush and many leading Republicans, including the party's presumptive nominee for president, Sen. John McCain, had repeatedly dismissed timetables for pulling out of Iraq as an admission of defeat that would empower America's enemies.

But Iraq's Shiite-dominated government demanded a withdrawal timetable as the price of legalizing the American military presence in the country after the expiration of the U.N. mandate at the end of this year. Recent security gains also made the prospect of winding down military operations more palatable to the White House and military officials, said people involved in the talks.

If approved in its current form, the accord seems likely to take center stage in the presidential race. McCain has vowed to stay in Iraq until the war is won but has suggested that he would have the troops out by 2013, two years later than the Bush administration has agreed to withdraw them if conditions in the accord are met.

Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has argued that the United States should withdraw troops from Iraq 16 months after his taking office, or by mid-2010, a faster pace for full withdrawal than envisioned in the draft accord. But the interim goal of ending combat operations in Iraqi cities by next summer is faster than any commitment made by Obama.

The draft appears to contain one significant concession on the Iraqi side. A senior Bush administration official said that al-Maliki allowed the timeline for ending combat operations to slip to 2011. Previously, he and other Iraqi officials had said they wanted American troops out by 2010.

A deal between American and Iraqi officials was given fresh impetus by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday. Rice met with al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders and confirmed that both sides saw the value in "aspirational timetables" to govern the continuing role, mission and size of U.S. forces in Iraq.

She declined to discuss the timing, saying that to go into details of the talks "would be inappropriate at this time." Instead, she reiterated the consistent American position that decisions must be based on events, not timetables.

"We have always said that the roles, missions and size of the American forces here, the coalition forces, was based on the conditions on the ground and what is needed," she said at a news conference in Baghdad with the Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari.

Iraqi officials were more forthcoming with their interpretation of the agreement. In a telephone interview, Mohammad Hamoud, the chief Iraqi negotiator, said that the draft contained two dates: June 30, 2009, for the withdrawal of American forces from "cities and villages" and Dec. 31, 2011, for combat troops to leave the country altogether.

Hamoud said the draft specified that meeting the timetable, particularly the goal of full withdrawal by 2011, depended on the security situation. He said that at the end of 2011 the Iraqi government "will review the security situation in the country and if necessary will ask the American side for certain forces for training or supporting the Iraqi Security Forces."

Another senior Iraqi Cabinet minister, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the agreement is still not final, described the 2011 target as "prospective," and said it reflected Iraqi government hopes that American troops could end their presence in the country by that time. He said that the ability to carry it out depended on Iraqi forces being "able to control the situation."

Even if the goal of withdrawing combat troops by 2011 is realized, the accord leaves open the possibility that American military trainers and support forces could remain in Iraq after that time. It is unclear whether the accord provides for semipermanent military bases in the country, and what role the United States would play in providing air and naval support for Iraq.

It is also unclear how the accord will deal with another delicate area that has been the subject of months of negotiations - the legal status of American troops fighting in Iraq. That has been a sticking point throughout the talks, with the United States insisting that American soldiers who commit crimes in Iraq be subject to American, not Iraqi, laws. American negotiators do not want to set a precedent that they say could be used in other countries with American troops.

The draft will now be presented to al-Maliki, the president, two vice presidents and the leader of the Kurdish regional government. If they approve it, it then goes to senior Iraqi security officials and to the Iraqi parliament, which reconvenes in September.

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