WASHINGTON – President Bush has agreed to a “general time horizon” for withdrawals of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the White House announced Friday in a marked softening of his longstanding opposition to deadlines for reducing the American presence.
Administration officials portrayed the shift, which came during a video conference between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as an evolution in policy rather than a fundamental change and emphasized that withdrawals still would be tied to improvements in security conditions.
But military officials acknowledged that by setting targets for troop reductions, the new agreement was a step toward a timeline.
“The bottom line is I think there has been a little bit of a shift, or at least a shuffle,” said a senior defense official.
The official and several others discussed the negotiations on condition of anonymity because the sensitive talks are not complete.
Bush and al-Maliki reached the agreement Thursday, in a televised call aimed at breaking a logjam in talks over a long-term security pact between the United States and Iraq. The talks involve two agreements: a framework for future economic and security relations and a legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in the country after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
American officials said the deal between Bush and the Iraqi prime minister should allow them to conclude the talks by the end of the month, as Bush has hoped. Iraqi negotiators, however, have been reluctant to be pushed into a long-term agreement, and it is unclear whether the concession announced Friday will be enough to satisfy the Iraqi parliament.
The administration’s shift on the timing of withdrawals marks another in a recent series of dramatic adjustments to long-standing policies on foreign security issues. In the past week, the White House agreed to send a U.S. envoy to meet with Iran’s nuclear negotiator and last month agreed to remove North Korea from a list of countries considered to be sponsors of terrorism.
But even under the new agreement with al-Maliki, administration officials emphasized that, if conditions in Iraq begin to erode, the United States would reconsider any troop withdrawal.
“We have agreed to work to establish some security horizons, aspirational goals, targets if you will,” said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. “But these won’t be arbitrary deadlines. They will continue to be conditions-based.”
The White House shift provides a political boost for the al-Maliki government. With important provincial elections approaching, al-Maliki has been denounced by rival Muqtada al-Sadr for tolerating an indefinite U.S. military presence.
Although the al-Maliki government doesn’t want the U.S. combat presence to end soon, it is under pressure to show Iraqis it is making preparations for an American departure. The vague goals embraced by Bush may not be seen by the Iraqi public as a major concession, but may enable al-Maliki to sell the deal to voters.
The shift also is likely to churn U.S. political waters. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has called for a withdrawal timetable, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the likely Republican nominee, has condemned the idea.
Obama’s campaign called Friday’s announcement “a step in the right direction.”
Obama also had applauded Bush’s earlier decision on Iran, in which the administration said it would send a high-ranking State Department official to a meeting in Switzerland today between Iranians and international officials, veering from the previous administration policy against taking part in talks with Iran.
McCain said the agreement between Bush and al-Maliki demonstrated the success of last year’s U.S. troop buildup and said withdrawals still will be “conditions-based.”
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Bush administration “is finally facing reality” on Iraq, Iran and other issues.
The exact dates or goals to be included in the troop withdrawal agreements still must be negotiated, officials said.
In recent months, additional American troops sent to Iraq last year have been moving out, but the administration had been reluctant to allow the level to fall below 140,000 troops.
The agreement ties possible U.S. withdrawals to greater Iraqi control over security.