AFP: From "surrender date" to "aspirational time horizon," US President George W. Bush seemed poised Friday to seal a reversal in Iraq policy by accepting a target withdrawal date.
CRAWFORD, Texas (AFP) — From "surrender date" to "aspirational time horizon," US President George W. Bush seemed poised Friday to seal a reversal in Iraq policy by accepting a target withdrawal date.
But the White House poured cold water on Iraqi claims that Washington and Baghdad had reached a deal that would see all US combat troops out of Iraqi cities by next June and US forces gone from the war-torn country by late 2011.
"There are still discussions ongoing. And it's not done until it's done," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe, who added that the negotiations were "hopefully drawing to a conclusion."
Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki spent an hour discussing the planned accord, which would set the rights and responsibilities of US forces in Iraq after their UN mandate lapses in late 2008, said Johndroe.
"When negotiations are hopefully coming to an end, when you can see the end in sight, there are a lot of details that have to be worked out, and I think we're in the process of working out details right now," the spokesman said.
The White House, which had in the past rejected firm withdrawal timetables as setting a "surrender date," now says that conditions on the ground allow for "aspirational time horizons" for bringing US troops home.
As recently as May 2007, Bush had defiantly declared: "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength."
Johndroe stressed that talk of a withdrawal was only possible because of Bush's January 2007 order to send some 30,000 more US combat troops to Iraq — an escalation widely known as "the surge" — to quell sectarian violence that Washington blamed for a political stalemate.
"We are only able to have these conversations now because of the security progress, the progress that has been made on the ground in Baghdad, in Basra, and all over Iraq," the spokesman said.
And US officials say that the timeframe is a target, not a hard-and-fast deadline like those Bush had rejected, and will require sustained progress on the political, economic and security fronts.
"So any discussions that are ongoing, that we are having with the Iraqis right now, include these aspirational timelines, these goals for more troops to come home," Johndroe said as Bush spent time on his Texas ranch.
But critics say the surge has yielded mixed returns, with a dramatic drop in violence but a failure to give Iraqis control over their country's security by Bush's November 2007 target date, and little by way of breakthroughs on legislation seen in Washington as central to unifying the war-torn country.
An impasse over a law laying out the rules for provincial elections — seen as a key step for bringing Iraq's minority Sunni population into the political fold — has postponed the vote from its target date of October.
Legislation aimed at rehabilitating members of ousted and executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party has drawn fire from some of the people it is meant to help because it kept restrictions on holding key government posts.
And legislation laying out how to share revenues fairly from Iraq's vast oil wealth — a step Washington sees as critical to tamping down sectarian tensions — has bogged down amid a dispute between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in the north.
News of the accord came with time ticking down before the November 4 elections — and the end of Bush's term in January 2009 — amid a campaign for the White House in which the vastly unpopular war has been central.
Recent public opinion polls have found that roughly two out of three Americans oppose the war, think the March 2003 invasion was a mistake, and want to see a timetable for US forces to return.
And Bush has come under pressure because of public statements by Iraq's leaders that they favored setting a withdrawal timetable.