End in sight

The Baltimore Sun

It's taken nine months to negotiate the security agreement that will govern the United States' continued presence in Iraq. The Iraqis wanted firm dates for withdrawal of American troops, and they got them. They asserted their independence and sovereignty, but the agreement doesn't ensure either. The Shiite-led government's ability to stand on its own won't be tested until U.S. forces begin to leave the country.

The Iraqi parliament should approve the agreement before the end of the year when the United Nations resolution allowing U.S. troops in Iraq expires.

The Sunni factions, which have a stake in the U.S. remaining in the country, may need some convincing. They want their own assurances about their role in Iraq's future. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki should offer Sunnis important government ministries before U.S. troops begin their withdrawal. Sunni tribal chiefs have been critical to the U.S. military's surge strategy that has significantly reduced violence in the Baghdad area.

Iraq's three main ethnic groups - Shiite, Sunni and Kurd - must have a stake in revitalizing the country for a free and independent Iraq to prosper.

Despite the Bush administration's opposition to deadlines, the agreement requires America's 150,000 troops to vacate Iraq by 2011. By the middle of next year, U.S. soldiers are to withdraw from combat positions in cities to in-country bases. A phased withdrawal should pave the way for a safe, timely exit.

The challenge for incoming President Barack Obama will be to live up to his dual commitment - to bring American troops home but withdraw from Iraq responsibly. Mr. Obama should stick to the timetable. Iraq needs to stand on its own, and American soldiers deserve to come home.

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