Nation & World

U.S. agrees to set withdrawal date with Iraq

BAGHDAD — The United States and Iraq are nearing completion of negotiations on a security agreement that would pull American troops out of Iraqi cities by next July and foresees all U.S. combat troops gone from Iraq by 2011, according to two Iraqi officials who are familiar with the negotiations.

"The tactical team is finished and it's a closed deal, but remember that we've been through this before and every time we close a deal it's reopened," said a senior official who's been participating in the talks.

The official said that the deal, once completed, would be perhaps the most restrictive agreement the United States had with a country where it had troops.

"We've seen all the status of forces agreements with other countries," the official said. "This is the best that the Americans have conceded."

The official asked not to be identified because the deal is still being negotiated.

Another official, Ali al Adeeb, a senior member of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Dawa party, said he'd been briefed on the negotiations and he confirmed the details.

The deal still must be approved by Maliki, other officials and the parliament, a process fraught with potential problems. The senior official said that Maliki already had expressed concern that the agreement wasn't strong enough, from the Iraqi perspective, on when Americans, including private contractors, would be subject to Iraqi law.

U.S. officials wouldn't discuss specifics. But a senior American official here confirmed that the negotiations are near completion, that the agreement now includes a "time horizon" for withdrawing American combat troops and that specific dates have been discussed.

"The negotiators have pretty much wrapped up their work," said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But we've seen things take unexpected twists and turns."

The official said, "There is a time horizon that we're discussing that involves various goals which are set together. There's a goal for when our combat brigades — the need for their presence here — will end."

The U.S. agreement to set a specific date for the end of American operations in Iraqi cities and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces marks a major turnaround for the Bush administration, which until last month had refused to discuss a timetable for withdrawal.

However, Iraqi officials were insistent that a date of some sort needed to be set. During Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's visit to Iraq last month, Maliki's national security adviser said that Iraqi officials hoped that U.S. combat troops would be gone by the end of 2010.

Iraqi officials used slightly different language this week to describe that part of the agreement, saying that the combat troops would be gone "by 2011."

Under the agreement, the United States would pull its troops from Iraqi cities and onto American bases in Iraq by June 30, 2009, according to the Iraqi officials familiar with the negotiations.

U.S. troops would be immune from Iraqi law while they were on their bases, but when moving outside the bases their actions would be subject to American and Iraqi military jurisdiction.

Even that provision may not be tough enough for Maliki, the senior Iraqi official said. "Now they want to renegotiate this," the official said. "We've worked really hard to come up with a reasonable formula."

The negotiations came to a standstill about two months ago when Iraqis complained that what the Americans were offering was worse than the United Nations mandate that allowed them to operate in Iraq as an occupying force.

"Our willingness to talk about dates and goals has helped," the senior U.S. official said. "It helped counter that propaganda that the U.S. wants permanent bases."