Washington (AFP) Nov 17, 2008
President George W. Bush appears to have had to climb down from his long-held opposition to an unconditional troop withdrawal from Iraq, a move which Barack Obama will likely speed up.
As the Iraqi parliament Monday began debating a US-Iraq military deal approved Sunday by the Iraqi cabinet, the White House sought to put a positive spin on the pace.
Spokeswoman Dana Perino acknowledged that Washington had had to make some compromises with the Iraqi government on the future of US troops in the Iraq.
And she admitted the whole pact could be reviewed once president-elect Barack Obama takes over from President George W. Bush in the White House on January 20.
But she told reporters: "We just keep getting success after success on the security front in Iraq.
"We have been able to reach this point because of the vision that the president had in sending more troops to Iraq, which was one of the most unpopular decisions that any president could have made if you think about what we were going through at the time in Iraq," she said, referring to Bush's surge strategy of sending in some 30,000 extra troops.
"But it has worked. And the Iraqis are now able to see a path where they can govern, sustain and defend themselves, which is -- which was our test for them."
Bush had long opposed setting any timetable for the withdrawal of troops, saying the Iraqis would first have to be able to govern themselves.
"Our answer is, there should be no definitive timetable; there ought to be obviously a desire to reduce our presence, but it's got to be based upon success," he said in June.
"We'll be making our decisions based upon the conditions on the ground, the recommendation of our commanders, without an artificial timetable set by politics."
The Bush presidency has been indelibly scarred by the Iraq war, from the 2003 invasion spurred by false allegations that late dictator Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction, to the abuses by US troops of Iraqis in the Abu Ghraib jail, to the bloody insurgent uprising.
Some 4,200 US soldiers have been killed in Iraq, in war which has also cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars.
Despite huge public opposition to the war and the Republican Party's emphatic defeat in the 2006 congressional mid-term elections, Bush resisted efforts to bring back the troops.
The war was also a dominant theme of the 2008 White House race, with president-elect Obama vowing to bring home the forces within 16 months.
But with the UN mandate allowing the presence of international forces in Iraq set to expire on December 31, 2008, Washington and Baghdad had to open talks on an accord to govern their future presence.
The text, now due to be adopted by the Iraqi parliament, sets out that US forces will leave the country by December 31, 2011 -- more than eight years after the March 2003 invasion -- whatever the conditions on the ground.
Asked about the timing, Perion said the dates were "firm."
The US joint chiefs of staff Admiral Michael Mullen said on Monday however that he believed the withdrawal should depend on the situation on the ground.
"I do think it is important that this be conditions-based," Mullen told reporters.
As expected Obama's incoming administration now inherits the huge task of ending a war launched by his predecessor and bringing home the 150,000 troops.
Obama told the CBS program "60 Minutes" on Sunday he would keep his word.
"As soon as I take office, I will call in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my national security apparatus, and we will start executing a plan that draws down our troops," he said.
Perino acknowledged that Obama could speed up the withdrawal.
"This agreement doesn't mean that a future president, the president-elect, would not be able to change this agreement later on if he saw fit or if the Iraqis saw fit," she said.
earlier related report
The Sadrist movement has vigorously opposed the wide-ranging agreement, which would replace a UN mandate that expires at the end of this year and allow US forces to remain in the country until the end of 2011.
When parliament convened to discuss the pact, the 30 Sadrist deputies demanded that the body instead examine another draft law on treaties and conventions, an AFP reporter present in the chamber said.
"We want the law on treaties and conventions to be the only thing discussed today, not the accord with the United States," shouted Aqil Abdel Hussein, head of the Sadr group.
Mahmud Mashhadani, the speaker of parliament, compromised and ruled that both texts would be read. The assembly read the first half of the military pact, then read the Sadrist bill, then completed the reading of the pact.
Ahmed Masaudi, spokesman for the Sadrist bloc, had earlier said the movement would submit a bill requiring a two-thirds majority for parliamentary approval, replacing the current requirement of a simple majority.
The current law is "contrary to the constitution and to the instructions from the Guide, Sistani, to obtain a national consensus on this agreement," Masaudi said on Sunday, referring to Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani.
The country's most powerful Shiite cleric has not taken a clear position on the agreement other than to say it must respect Iraq's "sovereignty," and has left a verdict on the deal to elected leaders.
But Sadr and his followers have adamantly opposed concluding any agreement with the US "occupier" and vowed to hold mass demonstrations to demand the immediate withdrawal of all foreign forces.
"The Sadr movement will use every legal avenue to work to stop this agreement," Masaudi said.
The 275-member parliament adjourned after reading both bills on Monday. The deputy speaker said on Sunday that the military pact would pass through a week-long process of deliberation before a final vote on November 24.
But parliament has no power to make changes to the text of the agreement.
The pact was expected to pass parliament after winning approval from the Iraqi cabinet on Sunday with the support of the major political blocs representing Iraq's Shiite majority and its Sunni and Kurdish communities.
A senior US official involved with the negotiations said he was hopeful parliament would approve, adding that the pact is the only realistic way to provide legal authority to US forces past December 31.
"We are very hopeful that the Iraqi parliament will accept," the official said on condition of anonymity. "There is no alternative to the security agreement."
Syria, meanwhile, slammed the pact, with Information Minister Mohsen Bilal saying it "rewards the American occupier, and gives it rights at the expense of the Iraqi people and their neighbours."
If parliament approves the pact it would need to be ratified by Iraq's presidential council before it could be signed by the two governments.
In a symbolic ceremony broadcast on state television before Monday's parliamentary session began, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and US ambassador Ryan Crocker added their signatures to the pact.
The agreement requires the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009 and from the country as a whole by the end of 2011, but senior US and Iraqi officials have said it could be modified by mutual consent.
US president-elect Barack Obama told CBS television on Sunday that when he takes office on January 20 his government "will start executing a plan that draws down our troops" in Iraq.
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