Bush lowers bar on Iraq pact

Remarks reflect doubt on long-term U.S. troop presence

July 16, 2008|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that Iraq wanted to include an "aspirational goal" for the departure of most foreign troops there in any agreement authorizing future U.S. operations, but he reiterated his opposition to what he called "an artificial timetable for withdrawal."

His remarks reflected the growing doubt within the administration that the United States could negotiate the sweeping long-term agreement that would clear the way for U.S. troops to operate in Iraq for many years to come. Bush and Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, had pledged to reach such an agreement last year.

Bush instead referred to a seemingly more modest "understanding" with Iraq on the legal status of U.S. and other foreign troops once the current U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.

"The Iraqis have, you know, have invited us to be there," Bush said at a White House news conference. "But they share a goal with us, which is to get our combat troops out as conditions permit. Matter of fact, that's what we're doing."

An administration official said later in the day that an agreement that would cover U.S. operations - from combat missions to detaining Iraqis - could still be reached by the end of this month, but only by leaving specific legal details governing military forces, known as a Status of Forces Agreement, to future talks.

Although the 52-minute news conference was dominated by economic concerns, Bush faced a series of questions on foreign policy concerns, including Iraq and the unruly border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

He also addressed the uncertainty over the status of terrorist suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners there could challenge their detention.

Bush also sought to rebut criticism from Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, who accused the administration yesterday of having a "single-minded and open-ended focus" on Iraq.

Bush disputed that the war in Iraq had distracted the administration from the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. At the same time, he acknowledged the worsening violence in Afghanistan, which he called "a tough fight" against a "tough enemy."

"You know, I understand exhaustion; I understand people are getting tired," he said, turning the question about Obama's criticism into a broad defense of his conduct of the war against al-Qaida and other terrorists. "But I would hope that whoever follows me understands that we're at war, and now's not the time to give up in the struggle against this enemy."

There has been resistance in both countries to the Bush administration's efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iraq that would outline broad diplomatic and economic relations between the countries, while also providing a legal basis for continuing to conduct military operations.

Al-Maliki, facing opposition from Iraqi political parties wary of U.S. intentions, told Arab leaders last week that he was prepared to negotiate only a shorter-term agreement. He said he would insist on a timetable for withdrawal.

Bush has repeatedly said that he will respect the wishes of the Iraqis. That has made it difficult for the president to dismiss al-Maliki's appeals, even if, as many administration officials argue, Iraq is unlikely to demand a precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops that could risk the security gains achieved in recent months.

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