BAGHDAD, August 23 – Negotiators have finalised a deal which will see the complete withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by 2011, ending an eight-year occupation, the top official in the Iraqi team told AFP.
Under the 27-point deal all American combat troops will be withdrawn from Iraqi cities by next June, negotiator Mohammed al-Haj Hammoud said Friday.
The agreement has already been approved by US President George W. Bush and now needs to be endorsed by Iraqi leaders, he added.
But while Bush seemed poised to reverse his previous opposition to a target date for withdrawal, the White House poured cold water on Iraq’s account of the deal saying details had yet to be worked out.
"There are still discussions ongoing," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "It’s not done until it’s done."
Hammoud said Baghdad and Washington had agreed to "withdraw the US troops from Iraq by end of 2011."
"The combat troops will withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 2009. Both the parties have agreed on this," he added. "The negotiators’ job is done. Now it is up to the leaders."
The security pact will decide the future of US forces in Iraq once the present UN mandate, which provides the legal framework for the presence of foreign forces in Iraq, expires in December.
Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had agreed last November to formalise such an agreement by July 31.
The arrangement was delayed by strong opposition from Iraqi leaders over issues such as a timetable for withdrawal, how many bases Washington would retain and whether American troops would be immune from Iraqi laws.
A US military official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP on Thursday that under the agreement the withdrawal of US forces from Iraqi cities "could be as early as June, conditions permitting."
He did not say when it was envisaged that US combat troops would be pulled out of the country, but said the two sides had negotiated "time horizons" and "general aspirations."
"The balance we’re trying to reach is between Iraq’s stated desire to have a more concrete view of US forces levels out through the years, and our desire it be based on conditions on the ground," the official said.
News of the proposed agreement quickly became fodder for the US presidential race, with Democrat Barack Obama saying the Bush administration had capitulated to his party’s calls for a firm date for the departure of US troops.
"I am glad the administration has finally shifted to accepting a timetable for the removal of our combat troops from Iraq," Obama said in a statement.
The White House in the past rejected withdrawal timetables as setting a "surrender date," but now it says that conditions on the ground allow for "aspirational time horizons" for bringing US troops home.
Hammoud said all issues had been addressed in the deal.
He added, however, that there was a possibility US troops could leave before 2011 or remain beyond the target date.
"There is a provision that says the withdrawal could be done even before 2011 or extended beyond 2011 depending on the (security) situation," he said.
Hammoud said that even if the withdrawal is completed by 2011, some US troops could remain "to train Iraqi security forces."
He said the issue of how many bases Washington would retain in Iraq depended on the number of troops left behind for training purposes.
A number of committees would also look into offences committed by American troops in Iraq. The immunity offered to US soldiers currently in Iraq was one of the main sticking points in the negotiations which began in February.
The deal has drawn sharp criticism from Iraq’s political factions, especially from the anti-American group of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
After Friday prayers in the central Shiite holy town of Kufa, his followers denounced the deal.
Hammoud said the finalised draft would now be sent to Iraq’s executive council comprising Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, his two deputies and the president of the northern Kurdish region, Massud Barzani.
It also has to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament.
The White House has said that US lawmakers would not be asked to approve the pact. With 144,000 American troops currently in Iraq, the issue is politically sensitive in Washington as the November US presidential election draws nearer.