President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have agreed to set a "time horizon" for US troop withdrawals as part of a long-term security pact, the White House said Friday.
But any reduction in the US force presence "would be based on continued improving conditions on the ground and not an arbitrary date for withdrawal," spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement.
The two leaders, speaking by videoconference on Thursday, also settled on a "common way forward" in stumbling talks to craft a long-term pact governing diplomatic ties and the US military presence, said Perino.
Washington says the agreement is necessary to lay out the ground rules for US forces that will still operate in the war-torn country after the UN mandate for their presence expires at year's end.
But the talks have sputtered over the Baghdad government's demands for a timetable for US troops to withdraw as well as Washington's demands that its soldiers and other staff be immune from Iraqi prosecution.
In their latest talks, "the leaders agreed on a common way forward to conclude these negotiations as soon as possible," Perino said in a statement that made no mention of Bush's hopes that the accord would be sealed in July.
They also agreed that the pact would "include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals -- such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of US combat forces from Iraq," she said.
"The president and prime minister agreed that the goals would be based on continued improving conditions on the ground and not an arbitrary date for withdrawal," she said.
But where the White House referred to reducing troop levels, not quitting Iraq entirely, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the goal was "to decrease the number of American forces in Iraq and later withdraw them."
Perino said US forces would move "from a primary combat role" to what Washington calls an "overwatch role" of training and advising Iraqi forces, and carrying out special forces operations.
"This transition and the subsequent reduction in US forces from Iraq is a testament to the improving capacity of Iraq's Security Forces and the success of joint operations" begun in January 2007, she said.
That's when Bush announced he was "surging" 30,000 more US troops into Iraq to quell sectarian violence seen as crippling efforts to pass laws seen as key to national reconciliation.
At the time, Bush also set a November 2007 timetable for Iraqis to take full control for their own security.
Bush and Maliki "focused on having a time-frame for the complete transfer of security responsibility into the hands of the Iraqi forces in order to decrease the number of American forces in Iraq and later withdraw them," Dabbagh said.
He said the two leaders vowed to work on "increasing the ability of Iraqi forces to improve the security situation on the ground so as to achieve this goal (US withdrawal from Iraq)."
US-led forces have transferred security in 10 of the country's 18 provinces to Iraqi forces, the most recent being in Diwaniyah on Wednesday.
US officials say violence across Iraq has fallen to its lowest point since 2004, and Iraqi leaders say they can take over security in the remaining eight provinces by the end of this year.
An official at the US embassy in Baghdad said it was still possible that some kind of deal would be finalised by end of the month.
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