NBC News and msnbc.com
updated 1/24/2008 3:22:59 PM ET 2008-01-24T20:22:59
EXCLUSIVE

The United States and Iraq will soon begin negotiating a power shift for U.S. forces, nearly five years after they invaded Iraq and installed a new government, Iraqi and U.S. officials told NBC News on Thursday.

Both countries are working on assembling negotiating teams to shape a new long-term bilateral strategic agreement redefining the fundamental role of U.S. troops, whose mission would shift from combat operations to logistics and support, the officials told NBC News’ Richard Engel.

President Bush did not address the report at an economic briefing for reporters Thursday afternoon in Washington, but Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, confirmed that negotiations would begin soon. Petraeus would not provide details, but he said the U.S. role in Iraq would be changing.

Officials of both countries have said in recent weeks that they envision an eventual drawdown of U.S. military forces inside Iraq. The Iraqi officials did not provide an estimate Thursday of how many U.S. troops could be withdrawn from the country, stressing that the agreement had yet to be negotiated.

But a senior member of the Iraqi negotiating team, which has been almost completely appointed, said they would seek to have U.S. troops — who for five years have conducted aggressive combat missions across the country against al-Qaida and other radical Muslim militias — largely confined to their bases.

U.S. troops would have only limited freedom of movement off base under Iraq’s position, leaving only when requested to provide intelligence, air support, equipment and other logistical support, the Iraqi negotiator said.

Plan would let Iraq fight its own battles
U.S. officials have long maintained that the Iraqi army is “all teeth and no tail,” meaning it is entirely focused on combat but is unable to operate independently because of equipment and intelligence shortfalls. The agreement, as envisioned by Iraq, would shift military operations inside the country to emphasize Iraq’s combat strength with sophisticated background support from U.S. units.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Iraq hoped to take advantage of a relative lull in violence in recent weeks to complete the new agreement by July, in time for a vote by the Iraqi Parliament.

U.S. and Iraqi officials acknowledged that there was no guarantee that the reduction in violence would continue, but they said the overarching goal was to have the new structure fully in place before Bush leaves office in a year, so as not to tie the next president’s hands.

The agreement would mean a sharply reduced role for the 158,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and the July deadline would dovetail with the U.S. Army’s desire to reduce soldiers’ battlefield tours from 15 months to 12 months beginning in August.

By Richard Engel of NBC News in Baghdad and Alex Johnson of msnbc.com.

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