This one sounds hard to believe. McClatchy news service reports that the Iraqi and American governments are nearing completion of a status of forces agreement that provides for the withdrawal of all US combat troops by 2011:
"The tactical team is finished and it's a closed deal, but remember that we've been through this before and every time we close a deal it's reopened," said a senior [Iraqi] official who's been participating in the talks.
The official said that the deal, once completed, would be perhaps the most restrictive agreement the United States had with a country where it had troops.
"We've seen all the status of forces agreements with other countries," the official said. "This is the best that the Americans have conceded."
The official asked not to be identified because the deal is still being negotiated.
Another official, Ali al Adeeb, a senior member of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's Dawa party, said he'd been briefed on the negotiations and he confirmed the details.
The latest deal is said to also provide for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraqi cities by next July. It sounds remarkably similar to the British withdrawal of its forces from Basra last year in preparation of their departure from Iraq.
What remains to be seen is whether the United States actually abandons its plans to nearly double the number of American military bases in Iraq from the existing 32 to a total of 60. The Pentagon has long identified a strategic need for a major, permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf region from which it can dominate the Middle East oil fields. Leaving Iraq would also relieve Iran of the pressures of strong American forces in Iraq on one border and Afghanistan on the other side. If the US proceeds with the expansion of its Iraqi bases it will be pretty obvious that it has no real intention of leaving anytime soon and certainly not by 2011.
To encourage al Maliki to cement a withdrawal deal, Muqtada al Sadr is now offering to disband his Mahdi Army militia once a fixed withdrawal date is set. There could also be an enormous amount of intrigue lurking behind that promise.