- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2008

President Bush said Friday he will soon agree with the Iraqi government on a “general time horizon” for when U.S. troops will leave Iraq, a significant shift in White House policy that it said would nonetheless remain conditional based on events on the ground.

By the end of this month, the two governments hope to finalize an agreement that will allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq into 2009 and will include what the White House described as goals for down the road, when more troops can come out.

“The president and the prime minister agreed that improving conditions should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals — such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq,” said White House press secretary Dana Perino in a statement e-mailed to reporters.

“The president and prime minister agreed that the goals would be based on continued improving conditions on the ground and not an arbitrary date for withdrawal,” Mrs. Perino said.

Related story:Petraeus: Al-Qaeda may be easing effort in Iraq

Democrats, however, said the president was conceding their long-held position that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible.

“The Bush administration is finally facing reality,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden, Delaware Democrat.

“I welcome today’s announcement that the president has reversed course and dropped his adamant opposition to a timeline for redeployment of American troops from Iraq,” Mr. Biden said.

Gordon Johndroe, National Security Council spokesman, said the agreement is likely to include some specific dates for “conditions-based” further withdrawals from Iraq, and said he expects much of that agreement to be made public. There are about 140,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

The White House announcement came just as speculation swirled that Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, was going to stop in Iraq this weekend for his second visit, and first since January 2006, to kick off his trip to the Middle East and Europe that begins Monday.

The White House said that the timing of their announcement was not tied to Mr. Obama’s trip, although the announcement was related to a phone call between Mr. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that took place Thursday.

Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, said the agreement was proof that Mr. Bush’s surge of 30,000 troops to Iraq in 2007, which Mr. McCain called for and staked his campaign’s future to, has worked.

Mr. McCain contrasted his support of the surge with Mr. Obama’s opposition.

“An honorable and victorious withdrawal would not be possible if Senator Obama’s views had prevailed,” Mr. McCain said in a statement.

“When a further conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. forces is possible, it will be because we and our Iraqi partners built on the successes of the surge strategy, which Senator Obama opposed, predicted would fail, voted against and campaigned against in the primary,” he said.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said the president’s move “represents a step in the right direction” but added that “instead of vague allusions, it’s time to pressure Iraq’s leaders to reach the political accommodation necessary for long-term stability, and to refocus on strengthening our military and finishing the fight in Afghanistan.”

But White House spokesman Scott Stanzel, traveling with the president in Tucson, Ariz., said “it’s important to remember that the discussions about time line issues previously were from Democrats in Congress who wanted to arbitrarily retreat from Iraq without consideration of conditions on the ground.”

“All of the discussions that we have always had have been based on conditions on the ground and making progress in the country, and we are doing just that,” Mr. Stanzel said.

The announcement comes at a time when Mr. Maliki and other top officials in his fledgling government have begun to publicly call for a hastening of the removal of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The White House and others have said that the statements by Mr. Maliki’s government are a positive sign they are gaining confidence in their ability to self-govern.

Signals have been mixed, however, as to whether the Iraqis are calling for a fixed withdrawal date.

The Bush administration has insisted that a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), which at the end of the year is supposed to replace a United Nations mandate authorizing U.S. forces to be present in Iraq, will not include a deployment timetable.

The SFA is less expansive in scope than a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which the U.S. has with 84 countries around the world and which the White House had hoped to have sealed for the beginning of 2009.

But negotiations on the SOFA have been hung up on issues such as whether or not American contractors will be immune from prosecution in Iraq courts for misdeeds, and whether U.S. forces will be able to operate unilaterally outside of Iraqi control.

The confusing resemblance between the SFA and the more expansive SOFA, however, threw off even members of the Obama campaign, who indicated they thought the announcement Friday was “in the context of talks about a Status of Forces Agreement.”

Mr. Obama, of Illinois, has made his opposition to the war from the beginning a key plank of his campaign but has grappled recently with how to adjust his stance on Iraq given the success of the surge, which was designed to tamp down growing violence.

The senator has continued to say that he will move quickly, if elected, to “end the war in Iraq responsibly,” calling it a distraction from the war in Afghanistan.

Mr. Obama has set a timetable for withdrawal of about 16 months.

Mr. McCain said Friday that if the U.S. last year “had followed Senator Obama’s policy, Iraq would have descended into chaos, American casualties would be far higher, and the region would be destabilized.”

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