18 November 2008
At a news conference Monday, the top U.S. military officer, Admiral Mike Mullen, responded "yes" when asked whether the agreement signed in Baghdad earlier in the day requires all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, regardless of the security conditions. But he also called the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA, "adequate for what we need now."
"Three years is a long time," said Admiral Mullen. "Conditions could change in that period of time. And, if we get to a point where this SOFA is agreed to, and have a relationship with the government of Iraq tied to it, that we will continue to have discussions with them over time, as conditions continue to evolve."
At the White House, Press Secretary Dana Perino also hedged on the withdrawal date, sticking to the label "aspirational" that she and other officials have used in the past.
"When you work with a partner on a negotiation, you have to concede some points," said Dana Perino. "One of the points that we conceded was that we would establish these aspirational dates."
Speaking from Baghdad shortly after signing the agreement with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told VOA's Kurdish Service it is too soon to say whether any extension of the American military presence beyond 2011 might be negotiated. He also said he expects Iraq's parliament to approve the agreement within 10 days. It will replace a U.N. Security Council mandate that expires at the end of the year.
The U.S. decision to agree to a firm withdrawal date is a distinct change from previous policy. Senior military officers and Bush Administration civilian officials have always said troop reductions should be based only on security conditions and should not be bound by timetables.
Admiral Mullen indicated Monday that current conditions and trends in the insurgency and in the competence of Iraqi security forces give him hope that the new timetable and the security conditions will not be in conflict by the time the last U.S. soldier is scheduled to leave Iraq.
"Conditions continue to improve in a way where we are allowed to withdraw forces, and we've done that very specifically," he said. "And, as I've said for a significant period of time, I am hopeful that conditions will continue to improve, so we can continue to do that."
Admiral Mullen said a full withdrawal of the approximately 150,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, along with their equipment, would in any case take two to three years. He also said the agreement's requirement for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities by the middle of next year is possible, but it will be "a big challenge" to securely remove U.S. troops from Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul by then.
The top U.S. military officer said he is "comfortable" that the agreement provides "adequate...authorities and protections" for U.S. troops to do their jobs. Reports from Baghdad say the agreement increases Iraqi authority over coalition military operations and allows for the prosecution of U.S. troops in Iraqi courts in extreme cases.
Asked whether the United States could withdraw its troops from Iraq even more quickly than the agreement requires, as President-elect Barack Obama has indicated he would like to do, Admiral Mullen said he recognizes there are "other options" for U.S. policy.
"Should President-elect Obama give me direction, I would carry that out," said Admiral Mullen. "I mean, that's what I do as a senior member of the military. What President-elect Obama has also said is that he would seek the counsel of myself and the Joint Chiefs before he made any decisions. And so, I look forward to that discussion, look forward to the engagement."
Admiral Mullen would not say what advice he will give Mr. Obama, but he said he believes security conditions should continue to be considered as the new president charts his Iraq policy.
By Al Pessin
17 November 2008