In reversal, Bush to accept Iraq withdrawal timetable of 2011
CRAWFORD, Texas (AFP) – After years of denouncing timetables for a US withdrawal from Iraq, US President George W. Bush seemed poised Friday to accept late 2011 as a target date for a complete US troop pull-out.
The top Iraqi negotiator told AFP in Baghdad that the tentative accord calls for all US combat troops to be out of Iraqi cities by next June and US forces gone from the war-torn country by the end of 2011.
The White House, which had in the past described setting a firm withdrawal date as a “surrender” to Islamist extremists, rejected any talk of a dramatic policy reversal as the first details of the accord trickled out on Thursday.
Talks on ending the US occupation are possible only “because of the security gains that have been realized since the president ordered five additional brigades and Marines into Iraq last January,” said spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
And US officials say that the timeframe is a target, not a hard-and-fast deadline, and will require sustained progress on the political, economic and security fronts.
“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,” Johndroe said Thursday.
Johndroe stressed that talk of a withdrawal was only possible because of Bush’s January 2007 order to send some 30,000 more US combat troops to Iraq — an escalation widely known as “the surge” — to quell sectarian violence that Washington blamed for a political stalemate.
“The security in Baghdad allowed the government to come together and make some of the political reconciliation, make some of the political progress that we all sought,” Johndroe said Thursday.
But critics say the policy has yielded mixed returns, with a dramatic drop in violence but a failure to give Iraqis control over their country’s security by Bush’s November 2007 target date, and little by way of breakthroughs on legislation seen in Washington as central to unifying the war-torn country.
An impasse over a law laying out the rules for provincial elections — seen as a key step for bringing Iraq’s minority Sunni population into the political fold — has postponed the vote from its target date of October.
Legislation aimed at rehabilitating members of ousted and executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party has drawn fire from some of the people it is meant to help because it kept restrictions on holding key government posts.
And legislation laying out how to share revenues fairly from Iraq’s vast oil wealth — a step Washington sees as critical to tamping down sectarian tensions — has bogged down amid a dispute between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government in the north.
News of the accord came with time ticking down before the November 4 elections — and the end of Bush’s term in January 2009 — amid a campaign for the White House in which the vastly unpopular war has been central.
Recent public opinion polls have found that roughly two out of three Americans oppose the war, think the March 2003 invasion was a mistake, and want to see US forces return home soon.
In a late-July survey by CNN, 62 percent said they favored setting a timetable for withdrawal, while 37 percent opposed doing so. The poll had an error margin of plus or minus three percentage points.
Bush had also come under pressure because of public statements by Iraq’s leaders that they favored setting a timetable for withdrawal in the agreement, which both sides said was needed because the occupation’s UN mandate expires in late 2008.
On July 18, the White House announced that Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had agree to set a “time horizon” for a pull-out that would be “based on improving conditions on the ground.”