Bush, Maliki sign future relations plan

US President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki agreed Monday to hold formal talks next year to decide the future of US forces in Iraq and other thorny issues, the White House said.Washington hopes to complete those negotiations – meant to institutionalise a long-term political, economic and military partnership between the United States and Iraq – by July, the US “war czar” told reporters.

“The basic message here should be clear: Iraq is increasingly able to stand on its own, that’s very good news, but it won’t have to stand alone,” Lieutenant General Douglas Lute said at a White House briefing.

Lute said issues like how many US soldiers would stay in Iraq and for how long, and whether there will be permanent US bases, would be decided in next year’s negotiations.

“The shape and size of any long-term, or longer than 2008, US presence in Iraq will be a key matter for negotiation between the two parties, Iraq and the United States,” the general said.

Monday’s announcement means that the Bush administration and Iraq will work out the future of US forces in Iraq in the shadow of the November 2008 US presidential election and despite sky-high US public opposition to the war.

Any resulting agreement could limit the ability of Bush’s successor to break with the current US strategy, as Democratic candidates have promised to do amid increasingly vocal calls for a US withdrawal.

Bush and Maliki set the stage for the formal negotiations by separately signing a “not-binding” agreement on a set of principles during a secure videoconference on Monday, Lute said.

“It’s a mutual statement of intent that will be used to frame our formal negotiations in the course of the upcoming year. It’s not a treaty, but it’s rather a set of principles from which to begin formal negotiations,” he said.

The pact assumes that the UN Security Council will renew for another year its mandate for US forces to stay in Iraq, before it is replaced by a US-Iraq arrangement, Lute said. The current mandate expires December 31.

“So we’re going from a multilateral, UN-based mandate, if you will, and in the course of ’08 we want to move that increasingly towards a bilateral setting,” he told reporters.

The hoped-for accord “will be something like a ‘state of forces agreement,’ which would then replace the existing Security Council mandate as the authority by which we operate alongside our Iraqi partners inside Iraq”, he said.

“So what US troops are doing how many troops are required to do that, are bases required, which partners will join them – all these things are on the negotiating table,” said Lute.

A status of forces agreement is usually a key part of any agreement to base US forces in another country, and often cover difficult issues like entry and exit rights and legal jurisdiction over US military personnel.

The agreement signed Monday also covers economic and politics ties, said Lute, who suggested that the pact could help foster elusive political reconciliation among Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurd factions.

“To the extent it doesn’t cause sectarian groups to have to hedge their bet independently, we’re confident that this will actually contribute to reconciliation in the long run,” he said.

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