U.S., Iraq agree to let troops stay until 2011

A050830517.jpgBAGHDAD (Reuters) – Washington and Baghdad have reached a final agreement after months of negotiation on a landmark pact to allow U.S. troops to stay in Iraq until the end of 2011, U.S. and Iraqi officials said on Wednesday.

The two countries also reached a compromise on the difficult question of whether U.S. troops could be tried in Iraqi court for crimes committed while deployed in Iraq, an issue that both sides had long said was holding up the pact.

The agreement was submitted to Iraqi political leaders for approval, a first step toward ratifying it in the Iraqi parliament, Iraq’s government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

A U.S. official in Washington confirmed that the final draft had been agreed by both sides and would require U.S. troops to leave by the end of 2011 unless Iraq asks them to stay longer.

The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush had long resisted committing to timetables for withdrawing from Iraq, and U.S. officials had in the past declined to comment on any deadlines that might be contained in the agreement.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the agreement envisions U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraqi towns and villages by the middle of next year, and withdraw completely from the country within three years unless a new pact is agreed.

“The withdrawal is to be achieved in three years. In 2011, the government at that time will determine whether it needs a new pact or not, and what type of pact will depend on the challenges it faces,” he told Reuters.

On the question of immunity for U.S. troops, he said: “Inside their bases, they will be under American law. Iraqi judicial law will be implemented in case these forces commit a serious and deliberate felony outside their military bases and when off duty.”

The U.S. official confirmed that a compromise had been reached on the immunity issue but gave no further details.

The bilateral pact replaces a U.N. Security Council resolution enacted after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and will give Iraq’s elected government authority over the U.S. troop presence for the first time.

Among other affects of the change, the U.S. military will no longer be able to hold prisoners without charging them with crimes under Iraqi law. U.S. forces are now holding 18,000 prisoners, the vast majority of whom have not been charged.

The pact still must be approved by a council of Iraqi political leaders, the Iraqi cabinet and parliament.

Should they fail to approve it by the end of the year, Dabbagh said Baghdad will seek an extension of the U.N. mandate.

The inclusion of a 2011 deadline in the pact could have political ramifications in the United States.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has said he wants to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the middle of 2010, while Republican John McCain has resisted setting any deadlines.

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