U.S., Iraqi Negotiators Agree on 2011 Withdrawal
Rice's Baghdad Visit Ends With Accord on Departure Date; Legal Immunity Is Still a Sticking Point
Friday, August 22, 2008; Page A01
BAGHDAD, Aug. 21 -- 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 the remaining issues blocking a final accord that governs the future American military 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. But the officials, speaking on the 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.
Rice and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spent nearly three hours here discussing key undecided issues. The accord must be completed and approved by both governments before a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.
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.
But negotiators made progress on a specific timetable outlining the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq, something Maliki is under considerable domestic political pressure to secure. In the past, Rice and other U.S. officials have spoken of an "aspirational time horizon" that would make withdrawals contingent on the continuation of improved security conditions and the capabilities of Iraqi security forces.
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, including Baghdad.
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, such as military trainers, for an unspecified time. According to the U.S. military, there are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, most of whom are playing a combat role.
Negotiators agreed several weeks ago to reduce the presence of all U.S. forces in Iraqi cities, among the most dangerous places soldiers operate, by the end of next year. That process would entail consolidating U.S. troops now deployed in small neighborhood posts into larger bases outside city centers, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials involved in the talks.
"They have both agreed to 2011," Mohammed al-Haj Hamoud, Iraq's chief negotiator, said in a telephone interview. "If the Iraqi government at that time decides it is necessary to keep the American forces longer, they can do so."
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 that her participation in direct talks with Maliki and visits with the Shiite and Sunni vice presidents would help conclude the immunity and timeline discussions.
"What my presence can do is to identify any final obstacles," Rice said Thursday as she began the Baghdad leg of a trip that has included a NATO meeting in Brussels on the crisis in Georgia and a stop in Warsaw to sign an agreement to station parts of a missile-defense system in Poland.