US President George W. Bush signed a deal setting the foundation for a potential long-term US troop presence in Iraq, with details to be negotiated over matters that have defined the war debate at home -- how many US forces will stay in the country, and for how long.
The agreement signed on Monday between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki confirms that the US and Iraq will hash out an "enduring" relationship in military, economic and political terms.
Details of that relationship will be negotiated next year, with a completion goal of July, when the US intends to finish withdrawing the five combat brigades sent this year as part of the troop buildup that has helped curb sectarian violence.
"What US 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 Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, Bush's adviser on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The proposal underlines how the US and Iraq are exploring what their relationship might look like once the US 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 US-Iraq "declaration of principles" during a secure video conference on Monday morning.
Al-Maliki, in a televised address, said his government would ask the UN to renew the mandate for the multinational force for one final time with its authorization to end next year.
The US-Iraq agreement will replace the present UN mandate regulating the presence of the US-led forces in Iraq. Al-Maliki said the agreement provides for US 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 US 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 UN Security Council to punish Iraq for invading neighboring Kuwait.
The new agreement would not signal an end to the US mission in Iraq. But it could change the rules under which US soldiers operate and give the Iraqis full responsibity for internal security.
Meanwhile, in Baghdad, US troops at a roadblock in the capital city fired on a minibus carrying bank employees to work yesterday, killing as many as four passengers, Iraqi officials said. The US military said it was aware of the report.
The shooting took place in northern Baghdad's Shaab neighborhood, known as a Shiite militia stronghold, as the driver was collecting employees to go to work at Rasheed bank, police said.
US troops fired when the bus reached the US roadblock and tried to drive through, killing four passengers -- including three women, police and hospital officials said.
Abdul-Karim Khalaf, the Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman, said a Finance Ministry bus came under fire, and one woman was killed and five passengers injured.
"We do not know what happened and we asked the multinational forces to investigate the event," Khalaf said.