BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraq and the United States signed a long-awaited accord on Monday requiring Washington to withdraw its forces by the end of 2011, eight years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
The pact, which must still be passed by the Iraqi parliament, was signed by Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker at a ceremony ending months of negotiations on the future of the U.S. presence.
"Definitely, today is an historic day for Iraqi-American relations," Zebari told reporters after exchanging signed copies with Crocker. Both men smiled and enthusiastically shook hands as officials applauded.
In Washington, the top U.S. military officer gave a cautious welcome to the pact.
Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he and other senior U.S. commanders accept the terms of the agreement, but still prefer a withdrawal based on security conditions rather than timetables.
"I'm in a position that is still conditions-based and I think it needs to be measured," Mullen said. "Three years is a long time. Conditions could change in that period of time."
Zebari and Crocker also signed a long-term strategic framework, which Crocker said would define the countries' ties for years.
The pact commits Washington to withdraw its force of about 150,000 troops by December 31, 2011. Iraqi negotiators consider the firm date a victory after the administration of outgoing President George W. Bush long vowed not to accept a timetable.
A senior U.S. official involved in the negotiations said the decision to relent and include a withdrawal date was taken a few months ago to make the accord politically palatable in Iraq.
"Opponents of the agreement, including Iran and others, were framing this as a permanent occupation," he said. "It was the opposite."
Iraqi lawmakers held a first reading of the pact, the start of an approval process that should run into next week.
"The final word will be for the parliament, but the political atmosphere is positive," Zebari said.
The pact gives Iraq's government authority over the U.S. mission for the first time, replacing a U.N. Security Council mandate that has governed the U.S. presence since shortly after the 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Under the deal, U.S. troops will leave the streets of Iraqi towns and villages by the middle of next year and leave Iraq altogether by the end of 2011. The deal also provides a system for Iraqi courts to try U.S. soldiers for serious crimes committed while off duty, but only under very tight conditions.
U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, said he was "deeply troubled" by the sections of the agreement that could result in U.S. troops facing prosecution in Iraqi courts.
Should Iraqi lawmaker approve the agreement, Skelton said, his committee would closely monitor its implementation to ensure that U.S. troops are protected.
The agreement's passage through parliament is likely but not assured. Followers of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr oppose the pact altogether, and the largest Sunni Arab bloc, the Accordance Front, says it should be put to the public in a referendum.
The Bush administration says the pact needs no U.S. congressional approval.
Some Iraqi politicians have said it became easier to back the pact since the election this month of Democrat Barack Obama to replace Bush. Obama pledged to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by mid-2010, while his opponent, Republican John McCain, opposed setting a date.
Iraq's government has become increasingly confident of its ability to maintain order as violence has declined over the past year. Last month saw the lowest death toll from violence since the invasion, according to government statistics.
U.S. officials say the Iraqi government's negotiating position became more assertive this year after a successful crackdown on Shi'ite militias in the southern city of Basra.
"The negotiations took a twist after Basra. This was an Iraq that was standing on their own feet and showing they could do something," said another U.S. official involved in the talks.
Iran, which has influence among Iraqi Shi'ites, has opposed the pact. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi did not explicitly reject the agreement on Monday, saying only that the United States must take seriously the views of Iraqi officials.
(Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran, Washington newsroom; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
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