Reports from Baghdad say Iraq and the United States have reached a tentative deal that sets a goal of withdrawing U.S. combat troops from the country’s cities and towns by the end of June 2009 and from the country as a whole by the end of 2011.
According to "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post," both dates are contained in a draft agreement covering the status of U.S. forces in Iraq (SOFA), once their UN mandate expires at the end of this year.
Both papers quote Iraq’s chief negotiator, Muhammad Hamoud, who confirmed the proposed withdrawal dates. He and other officials cited by the dailies emphasized, however, that those dates are not final and will depend on continued improvements in the security situation.
There are currently some 144,000 U.S. troops in the country, most on combat duty.
Iraq’s senior leaders, including President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, are due to meet to consider the document on August 22 before submitting the draft to parliament, when its contents will become clearer.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who was in Baghdad on August 21, refused to confirm the proposed withdrawal dates.
But she did tell a news conference that significant progress on a final SOFA agreement had been achieved in recent days. And she said that progress was thanks to recent security gains on the ground in Iraq.
"This is a terrific basis from which to be proceeding, and that is the success that we have achieved," she said. "We’re not sitting here talking about an agreement to try to get out of a bad situation. We’re talking about an agreement that is going to build a firm foundation for building on the significant success that we’ve had together in the last year and it gives more and more responsibility to Iraqi forces. There are provinces here in which Iraqi forces are completely in control. They are by themselves. There will be more of those. And so this agreement is based on success."
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari echoed her words, saying, "There has been a great deal of progress, in fact. Secretary Rice's meeting this morning with the prime minister was positive. And we are very close to finalize this important agreement for Iraq, for the region, and for the friendship and the partnership of Iraq and the United States."
If the reports are correct and the U.S. administration has indeed agreed to a provisional timetable for withdrawing most U.S. troops from Iraq, that will be seen as a victory for the leadership in Baghdad.
Immunity From Prosecution
Previously, U.S. President George W. Bush had been reluctant to discuss any dates, arguing that this would embolden the insurgency.
But the government in Baghdad was under huge political pressure at home to come up with some numbers.
Other hurdles remain before a full SOFA agreement is reached. Chief among them is the issue of immunity from local prosecution for U.S. troops.
The United States had originally asked for blanket immunity, but negotiators are now reportedly discussing rules that would distinguish between “on duty” and "off duty" personnel, giving the Iraqis some measure of jurisdiction over U.S. soldiers accused of committing crimes "off duty."