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US hails Iraq accord, sees ties on 'strong footing'

Photo courtesy AFP.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Dec 4, 2008
The White House on Thursday hailed Iraq's approval of a controversial security pact that gives US combat troops three years to leave, saying it will set long-term ties on a "strong footing."

"Today is a remarkable achievement for both of our countries," said spokeswoman Dana Perino, who told reporters that US President George W. Bush would welcome the decision in a written statement later in the day.

Bush telephoned Iraqi President Jalal Talabani "to thank him for his personal leadership" in securing passage of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

The US president also telephoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to thank him for his help with the accord, which lays out the rights and responsibilities of US forces once the UN mandate for their presence in Iraq lapses late this month, said Johndroe.

The deal will "help solidify Iraq's democratic gains that they've made over the past few years, affirm Iraq's sovereignty, and put its relations with the United States on a strong footing," said Perino.

But she declined to say whether Bush -- who leaves office January 20, not quite six years after he ordered the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein -- would travel to Iraq to celebrate the accord.

Iraq's three-person presidency council -- which groups Talabani, who is a Kurd, and two vice presidents, a Shiite and a Sunni Arab -- approved the pact, the final hurdle in terms of government or legislative approval.

But as part of the intense political bargaining that led up to parliament's approval of the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, the Iraqi government agreed to demands to hold a referendum on the accord no later than July 30.

"If there is a national referendum, Iraq is a sovereign country and they could decide to do lots of different things," said Perino.

"But I think that the fact that their representative leadership has signed this agreement today, that they recognize that they are going to continue to need our help for the next little while," she said.

"But we have a path now to help our troops get home," said Perino, "and we're going to be able to continue to do that, as long as we solidify the gains that we've made."

The next step for final approval is an exchange of diplomatic notes, which will bring the accord into force by January 1, replacing the UN mandate for the US military presence, the spokeswoman said.

Asked whether US president-elect Barack Obama's incoming administration had indicated they would abide by the deal, Perino replied: "I haven't heard anything different, but of course I can't speak for them."

The pact was made possible in part by dramatic improvements in security over the past year, with US and Iraqi forces now largely containing the chaos that erupted after the 2003 US-led invasion and the toppling of Saddam.

But US officials have repeatedly warned, however, that the progress is fragile and that sectarian tensions could easily flare up again.

On Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said US commanders were considering an accelerated drawdown of US forces, softening his opposition to Obama's 16-month timetable.

"I am less concerned about that timetable," he told a news conference at the Pentagon after Obama announced Gates had agreed to stay on as defense secretary in the Democrat's administration.

Gates said US commanders were already "looking at what the implications of that are in terms of the potential for accelerating the drawdown and -- and in terms of how we meet our obligations to the Iraqis."

On Saturday, Maliki met top US officials to push for the speedy implementation of the SOFA, which will govern the presence of the 146,000 US troops stationed in over 400 bases, giving the Iraqi government veto power over virtually all of their operations.

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Iraq centre treats the invisible wounds of US soldiers
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Traumatised by the battlefield or the anguish of divorce caused by long absence from home, many American troops in Iraq are increasingly shedding their macho image and visiting Combat Stress Clinics.

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