August 22, 2008

U.S. Near Deal: Combat Troops Out By ’11


By Karen DeYoung and Sudarsan Raghavan

The Washington Post


U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have agreed to the withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from the country by the end of 2011, and Iraqi officials said they are very close to resolving issues blocking a final accord that sets out the terms of the future American presence here.

Iraqi and U.S. officials said several difficult issues remain, including whether U.S. troops will be subject to Iraqi law if accused of committing crimes. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were unauthorized to discuss the agreement publicly, said key elements of a timetable for troop withdrawal once resisted by President Bush had been reached.

"We have a text," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said after a day-long visit Thursday by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Rice and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spent nearly three hours discussing key issues. The accord must be completed and approved by both governments before a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.

Rice downplayed expectations that a signing was imminent. "We'll have agreement when we have agreement," Rice said, addressing speculation that a deal was near.

The question of immunity for U.S. troops and Defense Department personnel from Iraqi legal jurisdiction - demanded by Washington and rejected by Baghdad - remained unresolved. Troop immunity, one U.S. official said, "is the red line for us." Officials said they were still discussing language that would make the distinction between on- and off-duty activities, with provisions allowing for some measure of Iraqi legal jurisdiction over soldiers accused of committing crimes while off-duty.

Negotiators made progress on a specific timetable outlining the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq, something al-Maliki is under domestic political pressure to secure. Officials on both sides have said they hope to split the difference, setting next year as the goal for Iraqi forces to take the lead in security operations in all 18 provinces .

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have now also agreed to a conditions- based withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011, a date further in the future than the Iraqis initially wanted.

The deal would leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops inside Iraq in supporting roles for an unspecified time.

The fragile nature of security gains over the past year was evident in the secrecy surrounding Rice's one-day visit here, which was not announced until her arrival from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. U.S. negotiators hoped her direct talks with al-Maliki and visits with the Shiite and Sunni vice presidents would help conclude immunity and timeline discussions.

"What my presence can do is to identify any final obstacles," Rice said .

"It's a chance for me to sit with the prime minister and really get a sense of if there is anything else we need to do from Washington to get to closure" on the Iraq security accord.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

Originally published by BY KAREN DEYOUNG.

(c) 2008 Virginian - Pilot. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.