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It's Timetable Time

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, November 17, 2008; 1:30 PM

It's a bit late and somewhat immaterial at this point, but it's still worth observing that President Bush today did something he said he'd never do: Agree to a firm timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

Peter Graff writes for Reuters: "Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker signed a long-awaited accord on Monday 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 Sunday. 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. . . .

"[T]he main focus for Iraqis is the pact at last committing the United States to withdraw a force that now numbers about 150,000 by Dec. 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. . . .

"Under the deal, U.S. troops will leave the streets of Iraqi towns and villages by the middle of next year and leave Iraq altogether by the end of 2011. The deal also provides for Iraqi courts try U.S. soldiers for serious crimes committed while off duty, but only under very tight conditions."

By contrast, here's what Bush had to say in May 2007: "I believe setting a deadline for withdrawal would demoralize the Iraqi people, would encourage killers across the broader Middle East, and send a signal that America will not keep its commitments. Setting a deadline for withdrawal is setting a date for failure -- and that would be irresponsible."

Mary Beth Sheridan writes in The Washington Post: "The Iraqi government spokesman portrayed the pact as closing the book on the occupation that began with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"'The total withdrawal will be completed by December 31, 2011. This is not governed by circumstances on the ground,' the spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, told Iraqi reporters, pointedly rejecting the more conditional language that the U.S. government had sought in the accord."

Sheridan adds that "there is no doubt that the accord, if passed by parliament, would sharply reduce the U.S. military's power in Iraq. American soldiers would be required to seek warrants from Iraqi courts to execute arrests, and to hand over suspects to Iraqi authorities. U.S. troops would have to leave combat outposts in Iraqi cities by mid-2009, withdrawing to bases."

Campbell Robertson and Stephen Farrell write in the New York Times that the Iraqi cabinet's overwhelming approval of the agreement "can be seen as a calculated judgment by the Iraqi leaders as to who, for now, is best positioned to guarantee their political survival. It was the United States, after all, that helped usher many of the current Iraqi leaders into power and, given the improved but still fragile security situation in the country, many still see a need for an American military presence."

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