The U.S. and Iraq have agreed to seek "a general time horizon" to withdraw more U.S. troops from Iraq.
Washington and Baghdad have been locked in negotiations on the terms of a long-term deal to keep U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the end of the year, when a U.N. mandate that gives the U.S. legal cover to stay in Iraq ends. Friday's announcement from the White House signals that the two sides are moving closer to an accord.
"It seems there's going to be some kind of temporary stopgap agreement between Washington and Baghdad that will give the U.S. some kind of temporary legal cover to remain in Iraq," NPR Defense Correspondent Guy Raz tells Michele Norris.
In a conversation Thursday, President Bush and Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed that the accord should include "a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals, such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq," a White House statement said.
The statement insisted the time frame was not "an arbitrary date for withdrawal."
"This essentially is an acknowledgment that their original plan is a failure," Raz says.
In Baghdad, a spokesman for Maliki says the two sides are still split on when the withdrawal would occur, but noted that the fact the U.S. is talking about a "time horizon" would placate many Iraqis.
"They both agreed that there should be a time horizon for the pullout of the American troops and to be agreed by both sides after rehabilitating and training the Iraqi security forces," the spokesman said. "It's not clear yet when this pullout will happen because the Iraqi side sees that it should happen by 2010 while the American side sees that it should happen by 2012 so the negotiations are still going.
"But the new thing is that it's the first time we hear the Americans talking about a timetable or a time horizon and I think this will meet with the general demands of all Iraqi politicians and the Iraqi people."
Maliki's political adviser said that though the agreement is vague, it will make it easier to sell to Parliament and the public, which had insisted on a withdrawal plan.
The White House said the reductions would coincide with improved security conditions in Iraq.
Raz says the Bush administration had hoped to conclude a deal on troops by the end of the month, but most Iraqi lawmakers opposed the terms. The sticking points were legal immunity for U.S. troops and contractors, the ability for the U.S. military to conduct operations without Iraqi consent, and basing rights for the U.S. military in Iraq.