Bush Reversal on Iraq Deadline Gives Obama Breathing Room

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 18, 2008

By agreeing to a fixed deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, President Bush contradicted years of promises that he would never agree to anything but a "conditions-based" plan for phasing out the American military role there. But he may also have given President-elect Barack Obama more flexibility in fulfilling his campaign promise to bring the troops home.

Obama pledged during the campaign to withdraw the remaining U.S. combat troops in 16 months, at roughly the rate of one combat brigade a month. The plan tentatively approved in Baghdad yesterday would essentially give Obama until the end of 2011 to pull out all U.S. forces, while also putting the imprimatur of the Bush administration on the idea that there needs to be an ironclad deadline for troop removal.

"It greatly eases the pressure on [Obama] to meet a fixed abstract schedule for U.S. withdrawals," said Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The agreement signed yesterday by U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari needs approval by the Iraqi parliament. And the Obama transition team is signaling that it wants Congress to review the pact, though not necessarily approve it.

"President-elect Obama believes it is critical that a status-of-forces agreement that ensures sufficient protections for our men and women in uniform is reached before the end of the year. We look forward to reviewing the final text of the agreement," said Brooke Anderson, a policy adviser and spokeswoman on national security.

But others familiar with the team's thinking said there is little question that the agreement should relieve Obama of the serious problem he would have inherited when the U.N. mandate that authorizes U.S. forces to operate in Iraq expires Dec. 31. The replacement agreement appears to give both sides what they need: for the United States, protection for its troops; for Iraq, a clear signal that the U.S. military presence will end on a specific date.

In at least one respect, the timeline may complicate what Obama had proposed on the campaign trail: leaving a residual force in Iraq to protect U.S. officials and conduct counter-terrorism operations after the withdrawal of all combat troops. The agreement makes clear that the U.S. government would need approval from the Iraqis if a residual force is to remain beyond Dec. 31, 2011.

Bush administration officials acknowledged yesterday that the timetable laid out in the final agreement is not what the president wanted originally but said that they could go along with it because of a decline in violence in Iraq in the past year. "The security considerations on the ground have improved so much and the Iraqi security forces have improved so much that you can now set a date and be comfortable with it," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Pentagon officials said the time frame envisioned in the agreement gives them adequate time to safely remove all equipment and roughly 150,000 U.S. troops from Iraq, although they reiterated that such a withdrawal should take place only if conditions warrant it. Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at a Pentagon news conference yesterday that he and the top commanders for Iraq and the region are "comfortable" with the agreement, but that there would be special challenges in meeting a requirement that all combat troops be removed from Iraqi cities by June.

"Turning the security of Baghdad over in that requirement . . . will be a big challenge," he said. "The other that is clearly not secure up north is Mosul. And we continue to be in a pretty tough fight up in Mosul."

Peter Feaver, who worked for two years on the Bush National Security Council, echoed the view of some Democratic experts on Iraq yesterday. "While they might not say it publicly, privately they are grateful for a certain amount of flexibility -- and this agreement gives it to them," he said, referring to the Obama team.

Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.

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