And so the Battle of Iraq is to be brought to an end, in T.S. Eliot's phrase, "not with a bang but a whimper."
With the eyes of the world focused on the Middle East peace talks in Annapolis, Md., President Bush's war tsar, Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, quietly announced that the American and Iraqi governments will start talks early next year to bring about an end to the allied occupation by the close of Mr. Bush's presidency.
The negotiations will bring to a formal conclusion the U.N. Chapter 7 Security Council involvement in the occupation and administration of Iraq, and are expected to reduce the number of American troops to about 50,000 troops permanently stationed there but largely confined to barracks, from the current 164,000 forces on active duty.
"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," General Lute yesterday told reporters in the White House.
Bringing the war to a close by the end of 2008 will ensure that the next president will face a fait accompli in Iraq, a fact that will further remove from the presidential election the Iraq war as an issue of contention.
Like the sharp reduction in casualties in Iraq since the full implementation of the "surge" in fighting forces, the agreement with Iraq will help Republican presidential candidates who have backed Mr. Bush's war strategy.
The agreement also will strengthen those more moderate Democratic candidates, such as Senators Clinton and Obama, who have resisted the siren voices on the left of the Democratic Party demanding a faster and total withdrawal from Iraq.
Mr. Bush and Prime Minister al-Maliki of Iraq agreed a Declaration of Principles in a teleconference yesterday, a "nonbinding pact" that set forth a "common sheet of music with which to begin the negotiations," to be completed by July 2008, which would end with "an enduring relationship based on mutual interests," General Lute said.
The Security Council's current Iraqi mandate runs out at the end of next month, and the Iraqi government would like it to run one final year before the lifting of all restrictions on Iraq's sovereignty, which were imposed after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait leading to the Gulf War in 1990.
America and Iraq will decide on a "strategic framework agreement," a bilateral arrangement for a continuing American presence in the country, including the number of American troops to remain as a bulwark against political instability and a safeguard against continuing Al Qaeda attacks.
"The shape and size of any long-term, or longer than 2008, U.S. presence in Iraq will be a key matter for negotiation between the two parties, Iraq and the United States," the general said. It is already planned that 20,000 American troops will leave Iraq by July 2008.
General Lute said he considers the deal essential to bolster pro-Western elements in the Iraq government.
"From the Iraqi side, the interest that they tend to talk about is that a long-term relationship with us, where we are a reliable, enduring partner with Iraq, will cause different sects inside the Iraqi political structure not to have to hedge their bet in a go-it-alone-like setting, but rather they'll be able to bet on the reliable partnership of the United States," he said.
"To the extent it doesn't cause sectarian groups to have to hedge their bet independently, we're confident that this will actually contribute to reconciliation in the long run," he said.
The agreement in principle "signals that we will protect our interests in Iraq, alongside our Iraqi partners, and that we consider Iraq a key strategic partner, able to increasingly contribute to regional security," the general said.
America is seeking to put its future relationship with the Iraqi government on the same bilateral basis as that of other allies in the region, with agreements on political, economic, and security measures, though the general was at pains to point out that the deal, to be negotiated by the State Department, is unrelated to the wider debate about peace in the Middle East.
"It's not linked in any meaningful way that I can think of to what's going on in Annapolis," he said.
Nor will the finished agreement amount to a treaty, which would have to face approval by Congress. General Lute played down the status of the negotiations while stressing that they are essential to allow Iraq and America to resume normal relations.
"We have about a hundred agreements similar to the one envisioned for the U.S. and Iraq already in place, and the vast majority of those are below the level of a treaty," he said. "We don't anticipate now that these negotiations will lead to the status of a formal treaty which would then bring us to formal negotiations or formal inputs from the Congress."