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US-Iraq Agreement Close on Troops' Future

  • Al Pessin

U.S. officials say they are close to an agreement with Iraq on the future of the U.S. troop presence in the country. But they deny reports that an agreement has already been reached. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

The first denial came from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on her aircraft on the way to Baghdad early Thursday. Later, after meeting with Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, she said the two sides have agreed that there should be what she called "some aspirational timetables" in the agreement for the future withdrawal of U.S. forces. Minister Zebari called them "time horizons." But Secretary Rice said any withdrawal would still be based on security conditions.

The other issue reported to be holding up a final accord is the question of legal immunity for U.S. troops and contractors who work for them.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman would not discuss specific issues in dispute.

"I would characterize it as others have, which is that we've made good progress on it. We are close," he said. "There are still some issues to work out, but that it's very premature at this point to say that we have an agreement. Secretary Rice is there to work this issue specifically and a lot will be dependent on how well those discussions go."

In Texas, where President Bush is on vacation, spokesman Gordon Johndroe said it is more important to get the agreement right than to get it quickly.

"The conversations that we're having with the Iraqis now are based on the improvement in security and our mutual desire to bring more American troops home," he said. "I think the president and every American wants to see American troops come home, but not until the job is done and there is more security, more political progress and more economic progress inside Iraq."

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators are working on two agreements, one to govern the operations of U.S. forces after a United Nations Security Council resolution expires at the end of this year, and the other to lay out the broad U.S.-Iraq security relationship. Officials say if the first agreement is not negotiated and approved by both governments by the end of the year, the Security Council might have to be asked to extend its mandate.

There are also concerns that the agreements could restrict the options of the next American president, who will be elected in November and will take office in January. But officials say the pending accords will only create a legal framework and will not commit a new president to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for a specific period of time.

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