‘Clear timeline’ urged for U.S. troop withdrawal

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BAGHDAD | The United States must provide a “very clear timeline” to withdraw its troops from Iraq as part of an agreement allowing them to stay beyond this year, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Sunday.

It was the strongest public assertion of Iraq’s demand for a timeline. President Bush has long resisted setting a firm schedule for pulling troops out of Iraq, although last month, the White House began speaking of a general “time horizon” and “aspirational goals” to withdraw.

Iraq’s leaders have become more confident in their ability to provide security as the country has become safer. But attacks that killed at least 15 people on Sunday, including a U.S. soldier, were a reminder that Iraq is still a violent place.

In an interview with Reuters, Mr. Zebari said the agreement, including the timeline, was “very close” and would probably be presented to the Iraqi parliament in early September.

Asked whether Iraq would accept a document that did not include dates for a withdrawal, Mr. Zebari said: “No, no. Definitely there has to be a very clear timeline.”

“The talks are still ongoing. There’s been a great deal of progress. The deal is very close. It is about to be closed,” Mr. Zebari said of the agreement, which will replace a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the U.S. presence, which expires at the end of this year.

A sticking point in the negotiations is Washington’s wish that its troops be immune from Iraqi law. In July, Iraq’s deputy speaker of parliament told Reuters that lawmakers would likely veto any deal if this condition were granted.

Other hurdles include the power of the U.S. military to detain Iraqi citizens and their authority to conduct military operations, Mr. Zebari said.

“Our negotiators have really found compromises on all these issues.”

He would not be drawn on the precise dates that Iraqi negotiators are seeking for withdrawal, saying the document was not yet final. Iraqi officials have said they would like to see all U.S. combat troops out by October 2010.

An agreement that included that date would require the Bush administration effectively to accept a timeline almost identical to the one proposed by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, who opposed the 2003 invasion.

“You may hear many dates, but I caution you not to take any of these dates until you get the final document,” Mr. Zebari said.

Iraq has taken an increasingly assertive stance in negotiations with the United States after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s forces scored military victories against militia groups this year, giving the government a confidence boost.

The high price of oil means that the Iraqi treasury has more money for reconstruction projects than it can figure out how to spend, and violence is at a four-year low.

Still, U.S. commanders say they worry that a hasty withdrawal could allow violence to resume.

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