By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Nov. 19, 2008 - The status of forces agreement that U.S. and Iraqi leaders initialed earlier this week respects Iraqi sovereignty while allowing U.S. servicemembers to continue operations, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell said here today. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are briefing Congress today on the provisions of the agreement, Morrell told Pentagon reporters.
The agreement does not have to be ratified by the U.S. Congress, but Gates has briefed representatives and senators throughout the process. In Iraq, the Council of Ministers has agreed to the terms, and it now is before the Council of Representatives. Morrell called on the council to pass the measure as soon as possible.
All U.S. defense leaders have confidence in the agreement, which will be released tomorrow, Morrell said. "If we had concerns [about the agreement], trust me, Secretary Gates and General Cartwright would not be up explaining this and supporting this to members of Congress," he said.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, have signed off on the agreement, saying it provides the necessary protections for American servicemembers in Iraq. Morrell said President George W. Bush also supports the agreement.
"We believe this is an agreement that respects Iraqi sovereignty, which was paramount here, but at the same time provides us with the authorities to do the work we still need to do in Iraq – going after terrorists that remain, and training and equipping Iraqi security forces," Morrell said.
The agreement calls for all Americans to be out of Iraq's cities and villages by the end of 2009 and out of the country by the end of 2011. That allows enough time to train Iraqi security forces so they can take over primary responsibility for defense of the nation, Morrell said.
Thirteen of 18 provinces have returned to Iraqi control, and the goal is to return the rest as soon as conditions permit, Pentagon officials said. Coalition forces are in overwatch operations in those provinces, and engage only if requested by Iraqi commanders.
U.S. forces have been drawing down since September 2007, Morrell said. Fourteen U.S. brigade combat teams are in Iraq, down from 20 in mid-2007. "As the secretary's fond of saying, 'The direction was determined then. It is now a question of pacing,'" Morrell said.
The drawdown is continuing, with a brigade combat team coming out of Iraq without replacement by Christmas. It originally was due to come out in January.
"We hope to be able to do it at even better pace between now and the end of this agreement," Morrell said.