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WASHINGTON (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 to remain there, the White House said on Monday.
President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki agreed to a "declaration of principles" that will guide talks on reaching bilateral agreements to cover a long-term relationship between the two countries.
The principles included defending a democratic Iraq against internal and external threats; encouraging foreign investments, especially American, to contribute to reconstruction and rebuilding; and supporting Iraq joining the World Trade Organization.
They also agreed it was important to provide security assurances "to deter foreign aggression against Iraq" and support its fight against terrorism, according to the declaration released by the White House.
"The two negotiating teams, Iraq and the United States, now have 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 would begin early next year and aim to conclude in July.
The Iraqi government will ask for a one-year final extension of the U.N. Security Council mandate of the multinational force in Iraq that expires at the end of this year, according to the Bush-Maliki agreement. After that, bilateral agreements would govern U.S.-Iraqi relations.
Maliki stressed the importance of ending that mandate for the coalition forces in Iraq.
"This is a goal pursued by all Iraqis who love their homeland and love it to be normal again without all the consequences it endured because of the policies and adventures of the previous (Saddam Hussein) regime," he said in a speech at his residence at the fortified Green Zone in central Baghdad.
It was too soon to say what the size and shape of the long-term U.S. presence in Iraq would be, but that was a "key matter for negotiation," Lute said.
There are currently 164,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Bush has resisted setting timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces and Lute said the bilateral agreements were not expected to contain those types of goals.
More than 3,800 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion of 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 U.S. troops that will see 20,000 leave Iraq by July 2008.
Lute said it was important for Iraq's neighbors to know 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.
He said the Iraq announcement on Monday was not linked to the Middle East peace talks this week in Annapolis, Maryland.
Additional reporting by Baghdad bureau; Editing by Philip Barbara