By MATTHEW LEE and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 23 minutes ago
BAGHDAD - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Thursday that U.S. and Iraqi officials agree that timetables should be set for a U.S. troop withdrawal, but conceded that nailing down a broader pact on future relations is difficult.
Appearing together at a news conference, Rice and Zebari also mutually asserted that a final agreement between Washington and Baghdad on a a broad document spelling out the nature of any future U.S. troop presence and Washington-Baghdad relations is close to fruition, but not yet complete.
"We have agreed that some goals, some aspirational timetables for how that might unfold, are well worth having in such an agreement," Rice told reporters after meeting with Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The two sides had come together on a draft agreement earlier this week and Rice made an unannounced visit to Baghdad to press officials there to complete the accord.
Zebari, asked about fears expressed by neighboring countries over such a pact, said in Arabic: "This decision (agreement) is a sovereign one and Iran and other neighboring countries have the right to ask for clarifications. ... There are clear articles (that) say that Iraq will not be used as a launching pad for any aggressive acts against neighboring countries and we already did clarify this."
A key part of the U.S.-Iraqi draft agreement envisions the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq's cities by next June 30.
Said Zebari: "This agreement determines the principle provisions, requirements, to regulate the temporary presence and the time horizon, the mission of the U.S. forces."
U.S. military forces went into in Iraq in early 2003 and overthrew President Saddam Hussein and the war is now in its sixth year. There have been more than 4,100 U.S. deaths there and countless losses among Iraqis. The war looms as a key issue in the campaign in the United States to elect a successor to President Bush, with presumed Republican nominee John McCain accusing Democratic standardbearer-in-waiting Barack Obama of advocating too precipitate a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
On the plane en route here, Rice had told reporters: "The negotiators have taken this very, very far. But there is no reason to believe that there is an agreement yet. There are still issues concerning exactly how our forces operate."
Her comments dampened speculation that agreement might be reached while she is in Baghdad on a several-hour visit, her first to Iraq since March, after U.S. and Iraqi officials said Wednesday that a draft document was done and awaiting approval from political leaders.
Rice displayed similar caution in the news conference with Zebari.
"Obviously, the American forces are here, coalition forces are here at the invitation of the Iraqi government," she said. "What we're trying to do is put together an agreement that protects our people, respects Iraq's sovereignty."
" ... But the goal is to have Iraqi forces responsible for the security of Iraq," Rice added. "That is the goal and that has been the goal from the beginning. " She said the military surge has worked and "we are making progress together in the defeat of Iraq's enemies of all stripes."
"We're not sitting here talking about an agreement to try to get out of a bad situation," Rice said, calling the agreement one that "builds on the success we have had in the last year. This agreement is based on success."
Zebari conceded that officials had hoped to conclude the pact earlier, but said that "it has taken us more time," citing internal political factors.
"Really, we are very, very close to closing this agreement," he said, "and as we said from the beginning, there is no hidden agenda here."
The foreign minister said the pact that U.S. and Iraqi officials are trying to finish will be presented to Iraq's Executive Council for review. "Time is of the essence," he said, "but, really, we are redoubling our efforts to bring this to a successful conclusion."
Followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr criticized Rice's visit and repeated their opposition to the security agreement. Sadr's followers control 30 of the 275 seats in parliament.
Luai Smeisem, the head of the political bureau in Sadr movement, said: "We as the Sadr movement denounce this dubious visit and such timing. We reaffirm our stance of rejecting the long-term agreement. We demand the Iraqi government, and on the highest levels, not to sign this unjust agreement and we demand the withdrawal of the government as soon as possible."
Iraqi and American officials told The Associated Press on Wednesday that negotiators had completed a draft agreement that extends the legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in Iraq beyond the end of this year, while calling for them to move out of Iraqi cities as soon as June 30.
A senior U.S. military official in Washington said the deal is acceptable to the U.S. side, subject to formal approval by President Bush. It also requires approval by Iraqi leaders, and some members of Iraq's Cabinet oppose some provisions.
Also completed is a companion draft document, known as a strategic framework agreement, spelling out in broad terms the political, security and economic relationships between Iraq and the United States, the senior military official said. The official discussed the draft accords on condition that he not be identified by name because the deals have not been publicly announced and are not final.
In addition to spelling out that U.S. troops would move out of Iraqi cities by next summer, the Iraqi government has pushed for a specific date — most likely the end of 2011 — by which all U.S. forces would depart the country. In the meantime, the U.S. troops would be positioned on bases in other parts of the country to make them less visible while still being able to assist Iraqi forces as needed.
There are now about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
U.S. officials have resisted committing firmly to a specific date for a final pullout, insisting that it would be wiser to set a target linked to the attainment of certain agreed-upon goals. These goals would reflect not only security improvements but also progress on the political and economic fronts.