American soldiers will withdraw from cities across Iraq next summer and all US combat troops will leave the country within three years, provided the violence remains low, under the terms of a draft agreement with the Iraqi Government. ( Times )
In one of the most detailed insights yet into the content of the deal, Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, has also told The Times that the US military would be barred from unilaterally mounting attacks inside Iraq from next year.
In addition, the power of arrest for US soldiers would be curbed by the need to hand over any detainee to a new, US-Iraqi committee. Troops would require the green light from this joint command before conducting any operation.
The Pentagon refused to comment last night on the proposals laid out in the draft agreement between Baghdad and Washington that covers the status of US forces beyond 2008. Britain will strike its own deal with Iraq, but Gordon Brown hopes to withdraw most British troops from Iraq by next summer, reducing the number of soldiers from 4,100 to "a few hundred" by then.
Mr Zebari said in an interview: "Our negotiators and the Americans have almost brought it [the accord] to a close. It is not a closed deal but it is very close."
After five months of sometimes heated debate, the technical part of the job - drawing up a legally sound document that contains various compromises and is written in the right language - is over.
Next, Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister, Jalal Talabani, the President, and other Iraqi leaders must give their approval - something that could happen this month, although Mr Talabani is in the United States recovering from a knee operation.
The so-called strategic framework, which includes a temporary status-of- forces agreement (Sofa), would then be put before parliament, which returns from a summer break in early September.
Asked if the deal was acceptable to Iraq, Mr Zebari said: "I think we can defend it, yes. I would say that it is the most advanced version of a Sofa ever that the United States has done with any other country because [of] the areas of compromises, of concessions, of understanding.
"This is not a recolonisation as some of our critics say, or another Anglo-Iraqi treaty of the 1930s that will bind Iraq." The terms of the deal can be reviewed within one or two years, subject to the approval of both sides - which ensures that the next US Administration will not be bound by the conditions.
Mr Zebari said that the agreement also made no provision for permanent US military bases in the country - a point of contention for the Iraqi public. The United States has scores of sprawling military camps up and down Iraq. Both sides "have managed to make some compromises on all the sticky issues or problematic areas of any Sofa, which are universal - jurisdiction; detention; powers of authorisation to launch military operations; issues of sovereignty," the Foreign Minister, speaking at his office at the Foreign Ministry in Baghdad, said.
The "time horizon" for the exit of US troops would depend upon the ability of the Iraqi police and army to maintain security gains in Iraq after a surge of US forces in 2007 helped to push violence to its lowest levels in 4? years.
"We are talking about combat troops, maybe in 2010-11, there could be drawdowns," Mr Zebari said, confirming that this was referred to in the draft accord.
The strategic framework provides a legal basis for US forces in Iraq after a UN mandate expires at the end of the year - another contentious notion for the many Iraqis who oppose the continuing presence of foreign troops.
President Bush has long resisted setting a firm timetable to pull out the remaining 145,000 US servicemen and women in Iraq, but the White House has begun referring to a general "time horizon" and "aspirational goals" in recent weeks.
The draft accord also refers to the prospect of US troops beginning to exit small bases set up inside various cities in Iraq to larger camps outside from next summer - which could be as early as June - depending on the security situation.
"The idea is really to keep these forces outside the main cities, the population centres. It doesn't mean that they could not enter or come through," the Foreign Minister said. The US Embassy in Baghdad declined to comment on the content of the framework accord, while describing the continuing talks as "constructive".
The Iraqi Government must also sign a status-of-forces agreement with Britain and all other countries with troops in Iraq.
British and Iraqi officials have held discussions on the matter but no negotiations have started.