WASHINGTON — The United States and Iraq have agreed to a "general time horizon" for further reductions of U.S. combat troops in Iraq, the White House said Friday, the first time the Bush administration has agreed to set any kind of timeline for troop withdrawals.
The agreement appears to be a political favor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, but the White House said it wasn't a reversal of President Bush's long opposition to any fixed schedule for troop reductions, including the veto of bills that included timetables for withdrawal.
But Democrats — including presumptive presidential nominee Barack Obama — hailed it as belated recognition of the need to hasten the end of the Iraq war.
Iraqi leaders have been insisting that a U.S.-Iraq security agreement now being negotiated include commitments on the eventual departure of American troops.
The White House statement, issued after Bush and Maliki spoke Thursday, contained no specifics on dates for troop withdrawals or the size of those reductions, and it remains unclear how specific the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement will be. Negotiations over the agreement have bogged down, but U.S. officials predicted Friday that it might now be completed by a deadline at the end of July.
There are currently more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, now that the last of five brigades that Bush ordered to Iraq in a troop "surge" last year have departed.
The White House statement said that Bush and Maliki "agreed that improving conditions should allow for the agreements now under negotiation to 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 U.S. combat forces in Iraq.
"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," it said.
White House officials insisted that the agreement on troop reductions was different from the proposals congressional Democrats and their allies have been advocating for several years.
"There's a substantial difference between what they proposed months ago about arbitrary withdrawal dates ... versus setting aspirational goals that are still based on conditions on the ground," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "There's a right way and a wrong way to withdraw troops from Iraq."
But Obama foreign policy adviser Ben Rhodes said the White House announcement "is another indication that the administration is moving toward Senator Obama's position on negotiating the removal of our forces as a part of our ongoing discussions with the Iraq government."
"We continue to believe though that a timetable will press the Iraqis to step up to their responsibilities," Rhodes said.
Obama — who opposed the troop "surge" — reaffirmed in a speech earlier this week his pledge to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office.
Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has predicted that most U.S. troops would come home from Iraq by January 2013, which would be the end of his first term, if elected.
Negotiations between Washington and Baghdad over the broad strategic framework document have bogged down over numerous issues, including the timeline for a U.S. troop withdrawal and the status of American security contractors.
Iraq's national security adviser, Mowaffak al Rubaie, said last week that Iraq would not sign the framework unless it contained a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The agreement announced Friday between Bush and Maliki appears likely to hasten completion of the deal.
"What it means is that you're giving people a pretty good idea, but not an inflexible one, of when you expect Iraqis to be taking over primary security responsibilities," said Daniel Serwer, an official at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Serwer, who served as executive director of the Iraq Study Group, noted that the institute has repeatedly recommended a "general time horizon" for U.S. troop withdrawals.
The move signals Iraqis that they need to resolve sectarian differences, and it will also nudge Iraq's neighbors to do more to contribute to the country's stability, he said.
"It's time for the Iraqis to take over, and that's the way the Iraqis feels about it," Serwer said.
(Margaret Talev in Washington contributed to this report.)