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All U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011

By Scott Wilson and Karen DeYoung,

The Obama administration has decided to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year after failing to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government that would have left several thousand troops there for special operations and training.

President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke Friday morning to cement that agreement in a scheduled telephone call.

The two leaders also agreed to continue informally discussing the need for and the terms of a U.S. military presence in Iraq into next year, people familiar with the agreement said. As a result, the only U.S. military presence that will remain in Iraq after the end of the year will be the roughly 150 troops needed to protect the large U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad and its thousands of American diplomats and other personnel, as well as provide training related to new military sales and other tasks.

“The rest of our troops in Iraq will come home at the end of the year,” Obama said Friday at the White House. “After nearly nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.”

The failure to reach an agreement could pose security problems for the Iraqi government, still largely divided by sect and ethnicity, and for an Obama administration that inherited the war but has pledged an orderly withdrawal.

If sectarian strife or other violence should break out in Iraq once U.S. forces have left, Obama could be blamed, particularly by his conservative critics, for abandoning Iraq after nearly nine years of war before it was ready to protect itself.

But the result also allows for a more definitive conclusion to the divisive U.S. military operation in Iraq, which has cost nearly $1 trillion and more than 4,400 American lives. Obama, who separated himself from the crowded Democratic field in 2008 in part through his clear opposition to the Iraq war, will now be able to tell voters as he confronts a difficult re-election campaign that he has overseen the promised end to the Iraq conflict.

The plan conforms with the agreement negotiated by the George W. Bush administration to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. But negotiations have been taking place for months between Obama administration officials and Maliki’s government over how many U.S. troops should stay to continue training the nascent Iraqi national forces and monitor potential flashpoints, such as the boundary line between the Kurdish north and the rest of Iraq.

The U.S. military has conducted training exercises with all levels of Iraqi security forces, from local police to national army, but officials in both countries doubt Iraq’s capacity to defend its borders. Obama’s announcement came as Turkey engaged in counter-offensive strikes against Kurdish rebels in the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The action is supported by NATO and the United States.

In the case of Kurdistan, total U.S. troop withdrawal could be positive “because [the Americans] are helping Turkey in the aggression,” said independent Iraqi lawmaker Mahmoud Othman, who is from Kurdistan, in a phone interview Friday night. “So maybe it’s better for them not to be around.”