WASHINGTON, Nov 26 (Reuters) The United States and Iraq have agreed to start formal negotiations next year about the future relationship of the two countries, including the size and role of American forces, the White House said today.
The non-binding pact, agreed to by President George W Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, lays out a ''common sheet of music with which to begin the negotiations,'' said Lt Gen Douglas Lute, White House deputy national security adviser.
The State Department would take the lead in the talks, which aim to reach agreement on the nature of the US-Iraqi relationship after the UN Security Council mandate expires, he said. The talks are expected to begin early next year and conclude in July.
The UN Security Council mandate of the multinational force in Iraq expires at the end of this year, and the United States expects that it will be renewed for one more year, after which the US relationship with Iraq would be governed through negotiated bilateral agreements.
It was too soon to say what the size and shape of the long-term US presence in Iraq would be, but that was a ''key matter for negotiation,'' Lute said. There are currently 164,000 US troops in Iraq.
''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,'' he said.
Iraq has experienced a decline in violence in the past few months, allowing for the planning of a gradual drawdown of US troops that will see 20,000 leave Iraq by July 2008.
Lute said it was important for Iraq's neighbors to know that the United States considers Iraq a key factor in regional stability.
''Just as we have long-standing relationships with other states in the region, we're looking to shape our future relationship with Iraq in the course of these negotiations in 2008,'' Lute said.
Lute said the Iraq announcement today was not linked to the West Asia peace talks this week in Annapolis, Maryland.
REUTERS JT RAI2342