President Bush had hoped to shape America’s military presence in Iraq for years after his departure from the White House by negotiating a long-term status-of-forces agreement, but a number of sticking points indicate there will be a much shorter time frame. U.S. negotiators have agreed to a kind of timetable for withdrawal, as demanded by the Iraqis, but are holding out over legal immunity for American forces.
The chief argument for staying in Iraq is that the country will fall apart if the U.S. withdraws, so it’s instructive that Iraqis themselves seem to look forward to that day. One U.S. official told The Washington Post that Iraqi politicians were adamant that some kind of withdrawal timetable be included. Otherwise they would not be able to sell the agreement to the people. Imagine that.
The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord—blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept U.S. terms and the complexity of the task—deals a blow to the Bush administration’s plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years.
Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, “we are talking about dates,” acknowledged one U.S. official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders “are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there. ... Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever.”
Unlike the status-of-forces agreements between the United States and countries such as South Korea and Japan, where large numbers of U.S. troops have been based for decades, the document now under discussion with Iraq is likely to cover only 2009. Negotiators expect it to include a “time horizon,” with specific goals for U.S. troop withdrawal from Baghdad and other cities and installations such as the former Saddam Hussein palace that now houses the U.S. Embassy.