Deal close on plan for US troops to leave
Iraq and the US are near an agreement on all American combat troops leaving Iraq by October 2010, with the last soldiers out three years after that, two Iraqi officials told The Associated Press on Thursday. US officials, however, insisted no dates had been agreed.
The proposed agreement calls for Americans to hand over parts of Baghdad's Green Zone where the US Embassy is located to the Iraqis by the end of 2008. It would also remove US forces from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, according to the two senior officials, both close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and familiar with the negotiations.
The officials, who spoke separately on condition of anonymity because the talks are ongoing, said all US combat troops would leave Iraq by October 2010, with the remaining support personnel gone "around 2013." The schedule could be amended if both sides agree a face-saving escape clause that would extend the presence of US forces if security conditions warrant it.
US acceptance even tentatively of a specific timeline would represent a dramatic reversal of American policy in place since the war began in March 2003.
Both Iraqi and American officials agreed that the deal is not final and that a major unresolved issue is the US demand for immunity for US soldiers from prosecution under Iraqi law.
Throughout the conflict, President Bush steadfastly refused to accept any timetable for bringing US troops home. Last month, however, Bush and al-Maliki agreed to set a "general time horizon" for ending the US mission.
Bush's shift to a timeline was seen as a move to speed agreement on a security pact governing the US military presence in Iraq after the UN mandate expires at the end of the year.
Iraq's Shia-led government has been holding firm for some sort of withdrawal schedule a move the Iraqis said was essential to win parliamentary approval.
The US Embassy in Baghdad declined to comment on details of the talks. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nangtongo said the negotiations were taking place "in a constructive spirit" based on respect for Iraqi sovereignty.
In Washington, US officials acknowledged that some progress has been made on the timelines for troop withdrawals but that the immunity issue remained a huge problem. One senior US official close to the discussion said no dates have been agreed upon.
They spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations have not been finished.