The White House said that the US and Iraq have agreed to seek “a general time horizon”, for the withdrawal of American troops.
On Friday, Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, said that the US president, George W. Bush, and Nuri al-Maliki (photo, from lefigaro.fr), the Iraqi prime minister, had agreed not to set an “arbitrary date for withdrawal”.
Previously, Iraqi leaders, including al-Maliki, have demanded a set timetable to be included as part of a security agreement, dealing with the future of US military deployment in Iraq, being negotiated by the two countries.
The troop withdrawals are one of several “aspirational goals” that will be implemented depending on conditions on the ground, according to the White House statement.
Ms Perino said that those goals include “the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of US combat forces from Iraq”.
In order to layout the ground rules for US forces in Iraq after the end of the UN mandate, by the end of the year, an agreement is needed, Washington says. But negotiations have run into trouble, particularly over the question of US troops being immune or not from Iraqi prosecution.
But concerning whether the agreement would lead to the US quitting Iraq entirely, there appeared to be some confusion.
According to Ali al-Dabbagh, Iraq’s government spokesman, the aim of the agreement was “to decrease the number of American forces in Iraq and later withdraw them”, whereas the White House only referred to reducing troops levels.
US forces would move “from a primary combat role” to what Washington calls an “overwatch role” of training and advising Iraqi forces, and carrying out special forces operations, said Ms Perino.
She added that “this transition and the subsequent reduction in US forces from Iraq is a testament to the improving capacity of Iraq’s Security Forces and the success of joint operations” begun in January 2007.
The violence across Iraq has fallen to a four-year low, says the US military, and in 10 of the country’s 18 provinces, security has been transferred from US-led forces to Iraqi forces. The more recent happened in Diwaniya province on Wednesday.
In the remaining eight provinces, Iraqi leaders believe that they can take over security responsibilities by the end of this year.
Though Mr Bush and Mr al-Maliki had aimed to confirm an agreement by July 31, on Friday, Dana Perino said that the two leaders had “agreed on a common way forward to conclude these negotiations as soon as possible”.
The originally envisaged security pact called the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) had now been “suspended”, said a US embassy official in Baghdad, on Friday.
“The SOFA as we had in Japan or Germany has been suspended or put aside but not thrown away”, he told the AFP news agency.
He added that a “security protocol or operational protocol” that contains the key contents of the SOFA but would be for a “certain period of time” is currently being negociated by the two sides.