By BEN FELLER, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - President Bush on Monday signed a deal setting the foundation for a potential long-term U.S. troop presence in Iraq, with details to be negotiated over matters that have defined the war debate at home — how many U.S. forces will stay in the country, and for how long.
The agreement between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirms that the United States and Iraq will hash out an "enduring" relationship in military, economic and political terms. Details of that relationship will be negotiated in 2008, with a completion goal of July, when the U.S. intends to finish withdrawing the five combat brigades sent in 2007 as part of the troop buildup that has helped curb sectarian violence.
"What U.S. troops are doing, how many troops are required to do that, are bases required, which partners will join them — all these things are on the negotiating table," said Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, President Bush's adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The proposal underlines how the United States and Iraq are exploring what their relationship might look like once the U.S. significantly draws down its troop presence. It comes as a Democratic Congress — unsuccessfully, so far — prods Bush to withdraw troops faster than he wants.
Bush and al-Maliki signed the new U.S.-Iraq "declaration of principles" during a secure video conference Monday morning.
Al-Maliki, in a televised address, said his government would ask the United Nations to renew the mandate for the multinational force for one final time with its authorization to end in 2008.
The U.S.-Iraq agreement will replace the present U.N. mandate regulating the presence of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq. Al-Maliki said the agreement provides for U.S. support for the "democratic regime in Iraq against domestic and external dangers."
It also would help the Iraqi government thwart any attempt to suspend or repeal a constitution drafted with U.S. help and adopted in a nationwide vote in 2005. That appeared to be a reference to any attempt to remove the government by violence or in a coup.
Al-Maliki said the renewal of the multinational forces' mandate was conditional on the repeal of what he called restrictions on Iraqi sovereignty introduced in 1990 by the U.N. Security Council to punish Iraq for invading neighboring Kuwait.
The new agreement would not signal an end to the U.S. mission here. But it could change the rules under which U.S. soldiers operate and give the Iraqis a greater role in determining their mission.
Two Republican senators said that unless Baghdad makes more political progress by January, the U.S. should consider withdrawing financial aid or political support from al-Maliki.
The warnings, coming from Sens. Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss, were an indication that while GOP patience on the war has increased this fall because of security gains made by the military, it isn't bottomless.
"I do expect them to deliver," Graham, R-S.C., said in a phone interview. "What would happen for me if there's no progress on reconciliation after the first of the year, I would be looking at ways to invest our money into groups that can deliver."
Likewise, Chambliss, R-Ga., suggested lawmakers might even call for al-Maliki's ouster if Baghdad didn't reach agreements on at least some of the major issues seen as key to tamping down sectarian violence.
Two senior Iraqi officials familiar with the issue say Iraq's government will embrace a long-term U.S. troop presence in return for U.S. security guarantees as part of a strategic partnership. The two officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the subject is sensitive, said U.S. military and diplomatic representatives appeared generally favorable, subject to negotiations on the details, which include preferential treatment for American investments.
Preferential treatment for U.S. investors could provide a huge windfall if Iraq can achieve enough stability to exploit its vast oil resources. Such a deal would also enable the United States to maintain leverage against Iranian expansion at a time of growing fears about Tehran's nuclear aspirations.
The framework Bush approved outlines broad principles, such as that both countries will support Iraq's economic institutions, and help its government train Iraqi security forces to provide stability for all Iraqis. Lute said "all major national leaders of the existing Iraqi government" have committed to it.
"The basic message here should be clear: Iraq is increasingly able to stand on its own; that's very good news, but it won't have to stand alone," said Lute, who rarely holds televised briefings.
He said it is too soon to tell what the "shape and size" of the U.S. military commitment will look like, including military bases.
The Iraqi officials said that under the proposed formula, Iraq would get full responsibility for internal security and U.S. troops would relocate to bases outside the cities. Iraqi officials foresee a long-term presence of about 50,000 U.S. troops, down from the current figure of more than 160,000.
Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this story.