Bush agrees to ‘horizon’ for pullout
President Bush has agreed to a “general time horizon” for withdrawals of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the White House announced Friday in a marked softening of his long-standing opposition to deadlines for reducing the American presence.
Administration officials portrayed the shift, which was announced a day after a video conference between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, as an evolution in policy rather than a fundamental change. They emphasized that withdrawals still would be tied to improvements in security conditions.
But military officials acknowledged that by setting targets for troop reductions, the new agreement was a step toward a timeline.
“The bottom line is I think there has been a little bit of a shift, or at least a shuffle,” a senior Defense official said.
The official and several others discussed the negotiations on condition of anonymity because the sensitive talks are not complete.
Bush and Maliki reached the agreement Thursday, in the video call aimed at breaking a logjam in talks on a long-term security pact between the U.S. and Iraq. The talks involve two agreements: a framework for future economic and security relations and a legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in the country after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
American officials said the deal should allow Bush and Maliki to conclude the talks by the end of the month, as Bush has hoped. Iraqi negotiators, however, have been reluctant to be pushed into a long-term agreement, and it is unclear whether the concession would be enough to satisfy the Iraqi parliament.
The shift is likely to churn U.S. political waters. The two presumptive presidential nominees have taken opposing views on the matter. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois has called for a withdrawal timetable, while Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona has condemned the idea.
The administration’s shift on troop withdrawals marks another in a recent series of dramatic adjustments to long-standing policies on foreign security issues. In the last week, the White House agreed to send an envoy to meet with Iran’s nuclear negotiator, and last month removed North Korea from a list of countries considered to be sponsors of terrorism.
Despite the new agreement with Maliki, administration officials emphasized that if conditions in Iraq began to erode, the U.S. would reconsider any troop withdrawal.
“We have agreed to work to establish some security horizons, aspirational goals, targets if you will,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “But these won’t be arbitrary deadlines. They will continue to be conditions-based.”
The White House shift provides a political boost for the Maliki government. With important provincial elections approaching, Maliki has been denounced by rival Muqtada Sadr for tolerating an indefinite U.S. military presence.
Although the Maliki government doesn’t want the U.S. combat presence to end soon, it is under pressure to show Iraqis it is making preparations for an American departure. The vague goals embraced by Bush may not be seen by the Iraqi public as a major concession, but may enable Maliki to sell the deal to voters.
Obama’s campaign called Friday’s announcement “a step in the right direction.”
Obama also had applauded Bush’s decision on Iran in which the administration is sending a high-ranking State Department official to a meeting in Switzerland today between Iranians and international officials. The move reversed a no-negotiations policy toward Iran.
McCain said the agreement between Bush and Maliki demonstrated the success of last year’s U.S. troop buildup, and he underlined that the withdrawals would be based on conditions on the ground.
Democrats in Congress said that the White House, after long rejecting calls for any sort of timetable for redeployment, had begun to budge.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Bush administration was “finally facing reality” on Iraq, Iran and other issues.
“They are now engaging directly with Iran and recognizing the need for more forces in Afghanistan while scaling down our force commitment in Iraq,” Biden said.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, rejected the administration’s attempt to distinguish between a “time horizon” and a “timetable.”
Bush, he said, is “now apparently willing to accept what he repeatedly has told a majority in both houses of Congress was unacceptable regarding Iraq: a commitment to transition U.S. forces from combat to a limited ‘overwatch’ role, focused on training and counter-terrorism operations, and a ‘time horizon’ for completing this transition.”
The exact dates or goals to be included in the troop withdrawal agreements still must be negotiated, administration officials said.
In recent months, the additional American troops sent to Iraq last year have been moving out but the administration has been reluctant to allow the level to fall below 140,000.
The administration has set target dates for some previous troop withdrawals. For instance, it specified when units that were part of last year’s troop buildup would leave. But officials have been loath to lay out a timeline for further draw-downs.
In September 2007, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, outlined a process to follow for gradual troop reductions, but included no dates. Now the White House is willing to begin adding the dates, said an administration official.
“We always had goals. Now we are willing to attach a general time horizon,” the official said.
Officials compared the agreement to the timetables established for handing over security responsibility in various Iraqi provinces. So far, 10 of the 18 provinces, including the three composing the semiautonomous Kurdish region, have been turned over to the Iraqis.
However, many of those hand-overs were delayed several times.
“In some cases, we met those goals and in some cases we did not,” the official said. “Now we can have goals on a national level, but they are not hard and fast.”
The agreement ties possible U.S. withdrawals to greater Iraqi control over security. Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who until recently oversaw the training of Iraqi troops, said this month that Iraq’s forces would be ready to assume primary security responsibility by mid-2009.
Maliki has been insisting on timelines for U.S. troop reductions as part of the security agreement talks, responding to domestic criticism about the American military presence. U.S. negotiators have opposed a pact that sets troop levels.
Other points of disagreement have included the legal status of foreign personnel. U.S. officials dropped their demand that private contractors working for the U.S. government be given legal immunity. But U.S. officials do not want American service personnel to be tried in Iraqi courts.
Some Iraq experts believe that Bush’s embrace of a timeline, however vague, will have a variety of benefits.
The timeline would reassure Iraqis and their neighbors that the U.S. combat troops do intend to withdraw, and would also focus their attention on what they need to do to prepare for that day, said Daniel Serwer, a vice president of the congressionally chartered U.S. Institute of Peace.
“It tells the Iraqis, ‘You’ve got to be ready to take over,’ ” Serwer said.
Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis in Baghdad and James Gerstenzang in Washington contributed to this report.