Iraq Repeats Insistence on Fixed Withdrawal Date

A U.S. soldier secures the scene of a roadside bombing in Baghdad. Iraq wants nearly all U.S. combat troops to be gone by the end of 2011.
A U.S. soldier secures the scene of a roadside bombing in Baghdad. Iraq wants nearly all U.S. combat troops to be gone by the end of 2011. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)
By Ernesto Londoño, Mary Beth Sheridan and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, November 7, 2008

BAGHDAD, Nov. 6 -- Two days after the election of Barack Obama, Iraq's chief spokesman said with unusual forcefulness Thursday that his government will continue to insist on a firm withdrawal date for U.S. troops, despite American demands that any pullout be subject to prevailing security conditions.

"Iraqis would like to know and see a fixed date," spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said in an interview in which he also reiterated Iraq's position that American forces be subject to Iraqi legal jurisdiction in some instances.

Iraqi officials, who see President-elect Obama's views on the timing of a U.S. withdrawal as consonant with their own, appear to be leveraging his election to pressure the Bush administration to make last-minute concessions. Dabbagh said negotiations to reach a status-of-forces agreement, which would sanction the U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond 2008, would collapse if no deal is reached by the end of this month.

Iraqi leaders have typically voiced their insistence on a fixed withdrawal date in Arabic comments aimed at domestic and regional audiences, and U.S. officials have frequently said that their Iraqi counterparts have sounded more conciliatory in private discussions. Dabbagh spoke directly to The Washington Post on Thursday, and in English.

Dabbagh said officials must return to the negotiating table, but a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said American officials presented Iraqi officials on Thursday with what she called a "final text" of the agreement.

U.S. officials in Washington said they had tried in the new document to accommodate Iraqi concerns, although they described few if any substantive changes. The administration proposed a stronger statement pledging that the United States would not launch attacks on another country from Iraqi soil -- a change prompted by Iraqi criticism of last month's attack by helicopter-borne U.S. troops on an alleged al-Qaeda in Iraq operative several miles inside Syria.

References to the 2011 withdrawal deadline were modified to emphasize that any troops remaining beyond that date would be there by Iraqi invitation. On the key question of Iraqi legal jurisdiction over U.S. forces, the Pentagon resisted any significant change, although there was a slight alteration in wording.

"The process has concluded on our side and we look forward to hearing back from the Iraqis," State Department spokesman Robert Wood said. "We have addressed the issues in a way that respects the sovereignty of both sides."

Aides to Obama did not respond to a request for comment.

In the interview, Dabbagh said American soldiers should be prosecuted in the Iraqi court system if they commit grave offenses outside their bases, unless they are on a joint mission with Iraqi troops. U.S. combat troops should cease operating unilaterally by June, Dabbagh said, and the status-of-forces agreement should say that the vast majority of U.S. troops must leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

"U.S. troops should be secluded to known camps," Dabbagh said. "The Americans would be called whenever there is a need. Their movement would be limited."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Thursday night that top Iraqi officials were studying the document the Americans had given them. "Time is of the essence," he said.

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