By Peter Baker and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
President Bush reached a deal yesterday that is intended to lead to a more normalized, long-term relationship between the United States and Iraq by the time he leaves office, but it left unsettled the question of how many and how long U.S. forces would remain.
Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki signed the declaration of principles during a secure videoconference as part of an effort to move forward 4 1/2 years after a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein. The declaration calls for the current U.N. mandate to be extended one year, then replaced at the end of 2008 by a bilateral pact governing the economic, political and security aspects of the relationship.
"The basic message here should be clear: Iraq is increasingly able to stand on its own," said Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, Bush's top Iraq adviser. "That's very good news. But it won't have to stand alone."
The document comes as violence has decreased in Iraq, and the administration is eager to demonstrate progress and defuse domestic pressure to pull out troops. Bush has made it his goal to turn over to his successor in January 2009 an Iraq stable enough that even a Democratic president would not feel politically compelled to pull out rapidly.
The nonbinding statement sets the parameters for talks on a formal pact. Those negotiations will address thorny issues such as what mission U.S. forces in Iraq will pursue, whether they will establish permanent bases, and what kind of immunity, if any, should be granted to private security contractors such as Blackwater Worldwide. Lute said negotiators will seek to reach such an agreement by July 31.
By extending the U.N. mandate "for a final time," the statement envisions Iraq emerging from under the auspices of the Security Council for the first time since Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, and just three weeks before Bush leaves office. Many Iraqi leaders still bristle that they fall under what is known as a Chapter 7 designation as a threat to international peace and security. Yesterday's statement said that emerging from under the U.N. mandate would enhance "the full sovereignty of Iraq" and "its control over its forces and the administration of its affairs."
The deal between Bush and Maliki came as the Pentagon reported that attacks by Shiite extremists using weapons linked to Iran have risen to their highest levels in months in and around Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City, despite a 75 percent decline since May in overall violence in the area.
"I remain very concerned in our sector about these special groups," Col. Don Farris, the top U.S. commander for northeastern Baghdad, told reporters by videoconference. "They're very lethal. They're organized. They're sophisticated. And I have not seen that their operations have declined or diminished in any way, shape or form here in the last several months."
In October, Farris said, his 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division experienced the highest number of attacks using the armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles linked to Iran since arriving in February. The spike -- nine attacks, compared with the previous high of seven -- comes despite suggestions by U.S. officials that Iran has curbed its support of fighters in Iraq.
"These are the Iranian-made weapons that are being employed by these special groups, these Shia extremists that are receiving funding, support and training from Iran," Farris said, adding that the special groups "operate from within the heart of Sadr City."
In the past six weeks, he said, the brigade has captured two Iraqi operatives, one of whom admitted to receiving training in Iran. A U.S. base in the area was also attacked this month by bombs using 107mm rockets and explosives, which Farris said were of the same types as those made in Iran.