Washington President Bush and Iraq's prime minister have agreed to set a "time horizon" for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq as part of a long-term security accord they are trying to negotiate by the end of the month, White House officials said Friday.
The decision, reached during a videoconference Thursday between Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, marks the culmination of a gradual but significant shift for the president, who has adamantly fought - and even ridiculed - efforts by congressional Democrats to impose what he described as artificial timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces.
In recent weeks, Bush and senior officials have hinted that they would be open to "aspirational" goals for removing U.S. troops, as Maliki and other Iraqi politicians have voiced increasing discontent with the idea of an open-ended U.S. troop presence in their country.
The White House has also been under pressure from top military officers to make more U.S. forces available for the war in Afghanistan, and that would be possible only by reducing the number of troops in Iraq, administration officials said. U.S. troop levels there have been decreasing in recent months, as they return to the 15 combat brigades present before Bush ordered a troop increase last year.
Senior military officials have made clear that they expect troop levels in Iraq to drop even further this fall, following a 45-day period of assessment by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. In a statement issued Friday, after the conversation between Bush and Maliki, the White House went further than it has in previous official statements to indicate that it shares that expectation.