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Bush 'Hopeful' for Agreement on US Forces in Iraq


U.S. President George Bush says he is confident an agreement with Baghdad on the future status of American forces in Iraq can be approved before their U.N. mandate expires on December 31. As VOA's Paula Wolfson reports, Mr. Bush spoke after talks at the White House with the President of Iraq's Kurdish regional government, Massoud Barzani.

Time is running out for completing the Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Baghdad.

A draft accord is in hand after months of negotiations, but the Iraqis have now proposed changes to the plan.

President Bush told Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani that the request will receive serious consideration.

"We are analyzing those amendments," he said. "We obviously want to be helpful and constructive without undermining basic principles. And I remain very hopeful and confident that the SOFA [Status of Forces Agreement] will be passed."

But U.S. officials have warned that the bar for changes is set very high. They have indicated there is little desire in Washington to reopen negotiations on the substance of the deal.

At the same time, they say the agreement is vital, and that the door is not closed to possible changes in wording.

At the Pentagon, spokesman Geoff Morrell stressed the proposed changes will be studied carefully, deliberately and with respect.

"Strategic partners give each other the courtesy of listening to concerns," he said. "So the Iraqis have raised some concerns. We are now trying to translate them and figure out what precisely they are. And we will listen to them. We will evaluate them and we will make decisions based upon our understanding at that point."

No one in the Bush administration is commenting publicly on the specifics of the proposals. But an Iraqi government spokesman in Baghdad says the amendments include language that would ban U.S. forces from attacking neighboring countries from Iraqi territory. The proposed changes also deal with the legal rights of American troops in Iraq and the outlook for a drawdown of U.S. forces.

Some Iraqi officials have acknowledged that these changes will be difficult for the United States to accept, leaving open the possibility of seeking an extension of the U.N. forces mandate.

Pentagon spokesman Morrell told reporters Wednesday that Washington is heartened by statements from Moscow and other capitals on prospects for renewal. But he stressed the focus remains on reaching a Status of Forces Agreement on time.

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