Agree To Disagree? Maliki, Bush Admin Clash On Status Of Pullout Agreement

Some interesting news broke today that has been buried amid the orgy of convention coverage: Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said — apparently in a speech to tribal leaders in the Green Zone — that the U.S. and Iraq had agreed that all “foreign soldiers” would leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Maliki was promptly shot down by the White House, which maintained there is no pullout date.

U.S. and Iraqi negotiators have been working toward an agreement for months, with the U.S. seeking a legal basis for stationing troops in Iraq when U.N. authority expires at the end of this year.

Here’s how Campbell Robertson of the International Herald Tribune reported Maliki’s comments today:

Iraq and the United States have agreed on a date for the departure of all American troops as part of a broader security pact they are negotiating, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, said Monday.

“There is actually an agreement concluded between the two parties over the definite date, which is 2011, to end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil,” Maliki said.

Maliki made the comments in a speech to tribal leaders in the Green Zone in Baghdad, but it was far from clear that the issue had been settled.

In its own version of the story, Agence France-Presse runs a slightly different Maliki quote:

“There is an agreement between the two sides that there will be no foreign soldiers in Iraq after 2011,” Maliki said in a statement issued by his office.

AFP also includes a stern denial from Bush Administration spokesman Tony Fratto, who maintains that “we have not yet finalized an agreement.” Fratto even seems to back away from Condoleezza Rice’s recent endorsement — however mushy — of a “timetable” for withdrawal. Fratto’s comment, after the jump:

Fratto cited “great strides” by Iraqi security forces, but said any US troop pull-out would depend on conditions on the ground — not a hard-and-fast timetable for withdrawal.

“We’re optimistic that Iraq and the US can reach a mutual agreement on flexible goals for US troops to continue to return on success — based on conditions on the ground — and allow Iraqi forces to provide security for a sovereign Iraq,” he said.

And the AFP story gives still more evidence of disjunction between the two sides:

On Friday, the chief Iraqi negotiator Mohammed al-Haj Hammoud told AFP that the security pact had been finalized by both sides and had already won Bush’s approval — drawing a swift White House denial.

Hammoud said that under the 27-point deal, all American combat troops will be withdrawn from Iraqi cities by next June ahead of a complete withdrawal by 2011.

The US Defense Department also stressed that a final accord had yet to be reached.

“The agreement is not completed,” spokesman Bryan Whitman said at the Pentagon, adding that specifics were “still being worked through.”

Anyone following the stream of anonymously sourced stories on the progress of the U.S.-Iraqi negotiations will recognize the head-spinning muddle here. We’ve heard several times now that a deal is close, or has been agreed to, but still remains subject to varying levels of approval from both sides. It’s also far from clear whether any withdrawal agreement will apply merely to U.S. “combat troops” or to the broader “foreign presence” Maliki referred to today.

With Maliki’s comments today, it appears the two negotiating parties aren’t even sure where the other stands.

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