WASHINGTON — President Bush has agreed to a "general time horizon" for withdrawals of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the White House announced Friday in a marked softening of his long-standing opposition to deadlines for reducing the American presence.
Administration officials portrayed the shift, which came during a video conference between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as an evolution in policy rather than a fundamental change and emphasized that withdrawals still would be tied to improvements in security conditions.
But military officials acknowledged that by setting targets for troop reductions, the new agreement was a step toward a time line.
Bush and Maliki reached the agreement Thursday, in a televised call aimed at breaking a logjam in talks over a long-term security pact between the United States and Iraq. The talks involve two agreements: a framework for future economic and security relations and a legal basis for U.S. troops to remain in the country after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
American officials said the deal between Bush and the Iraqi prime minister should allow them to conclude the talks by the end of the month, as Bush has hoped. Iraqi negotiators, however, have been reluctant to be pushed into a long-term agreement, and it is unclear whether the concession announced Friday will be enough to satisfy the Iraqi parliament.
The administration's shift on the timing of withdrawals marks another in a recent series of dramatic adjustments to long-standing policies on foreign security issues. In the past week, the White House agreed to send a U.S. envoy to meet with Iran's nuclear negotiator and last month agreed to remove North Korea from a list of countries considered to be sponsors of terrorism.
But even under the new agreement with Maliki, administration officials emphasized that, if conditions in Iraq begin to erode, the United States would reconsider any troop withdrawal.
"We have agreed to work to establish some security horizons, aspirational goals, targets if you will," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary. "But these won't be arbitrary deadlines. They will continue to be conditions-based."
The White House shift provides a political boost for the Maliki government. With important provincial elections approaching, Maliki has been denounced by rival Muqtada al-Sadr for tolerating an indefinite U.S. military presence.
Although the Maliki government doesn't want the U.S. combat presence to end soon, it is under pressure to show Iraqis it is making preparations for an American departure. The vague goals embraced by Bush may not be seen by the Iraqi public as a major concession, but may enable Maliki to sell the deal to voters.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Bush administration "is finally facing reality" on Iraq, Iran and other issues.
The exact dates or goals to be included in the troop withdrawal agreements still must be negotiated, officials said.
In recent months, additional American troops sent to Iraq last year have been moving out, but the administration had been reluctant to allow the level to fall below 140,000 troops.
Friday's statements noted the gradual handover of security to Iraqi forces, now complete in 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces, though not in the most volatile ones, where American and Iraqi troops continue to wage war with insurgents. The statements suggested that the final agreement could link the complete transition of control in the remaining provinces to the withdrawal of American forces — a timetable, though, without specific dates.
The statements also referred to the withdrawal this month of the last of five additional combat brigades that Bush ordered to Iraq last year. The American commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is now reviewing the possibility of withdrawing more beginning in September.
On Wednesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, said he hoped that additional brigades could come out; some administration and military officials have previously indicated that as many as three of the remaining 15 brigades could begin to withdraw by next year.
The agreement ties possible U.S. withdrawals to greater Iraqi control over security. Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who until recently oversaw the training of Iraqi troops, said this month that Iraq's forces would be ready to assume primary security responsibility by the middle of 2009.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.