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Iraq, U.S. Sign Pact On Troop-Withdrawal Deadline

Zebari noted the agreement must still pass parliament, but the atmosphere is "positive."
BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker have signed a long-awaited accord requiring Washington to withdraw its forces within three years.

The signing ceremony put a formal end to months of negotiations over the pact on the future of the U.S. presence, which the Iraqi government approved on November 16. The pact must still be passed in the Iraqi parliament, but the government is confident it will achieve this by the end of the month.

"Definitely, today is an historic day for Iraqi-American relations, signing the security pact after months of difficult talks and negotiations," Zebari told reporters after exchanging signed copies with Crocker. Both men smiled and enthusiastically shook hands as officials applauded.

Apart from the troops pact, the two men signed a long-term strategic framework, which Crocker said would define relations between the countries for years in "economy, culture, science, technology, health, and trade, just to name a few."

"It reminds us all that, at a time when U.S. forces will continue to withdraw from Iraq in recognition of the superlative security gains over the last few years, our relationship will develop in many other important ways."

But the main focus for Iraqis is the pact at last committing the United States to withdraw a force that now numbers about 150,000 by December 31, 2011, a firm date that reflects the growing confidence of Iraq's government as violence has eased.

Iraqi leaders consider the date to be a major negotiating victory after the administration of outgoing President George W. Bush long vowed not to accept a firm timetable.

"This was a complicated and tough negotiation, and I think all Iraqis can be very proud of the substantial achievement that their negotiating team has witnessed," Crocker said.

Iraqi lawmakers were due to begin a first reading of the troops accord later on November 17, the start of an approval process that should run into next week.

"The final word will be for the parliament, but the political atmosphere is positive," Zebari said.