The U.S.-Iraqi deal on troop withdrawals, while not yet final, appears to mark the beginning of the end of a combat commitment that has cost more than 4,100 U.S. lives and at least $500 billion.

It does not mean the war is over, or even that most U.S. troops will be home soon. But it shows a new U.S. readiness to set at least a rough timetable for reducing its presence over the next three years. And it reflects a growing U.S. willingness to let Iraq take over the fight against insurgents.

It also coincides with the prospect of a deepening U.S. combat involvement in Afghanistan in coming months. American commanders say more troops are needed there to fight a resurgent Taliban movement that was removed from power by U.S.-led forces after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Adding to the number of American combat troops in Afghanistan depends on reducing the numbers in Iraq.

Until very recently the Bush administration resisted setting any timetables for concluding American combat involvement in Iraq, insisting that troop reductions be dictated only by developments on the ground as assessed by U.S. commanders. In fact, developments have turned more positive in recent months, even as strains on the U.S. military have grown in the sixth year of an unpopular war.

“The stars appear to be aligning” in a way that optimists would say points to a winding down of the war, said Graham Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

“There is a convergence of interests now in a change in the roles and missions for American forces and for reductions of (troop) numbers” on at least a theoretical timeline, Allison said in a telephone interview Friday. He added, with emphasis, that it would be unwise to assume there will be no setbacks

Also, as the White House reminded on Friday, there is not yet a final agreement.

President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki spoke during the day by secure video as work on the plan to withdraw U.S. troops continued.

“There are still discussions ongoing,” said spokesman Gordon Johndroe, with the president in Texas. “It’s not done until it’s done. And the discussions are really ongoing. And ongoing and ongoing. But hopefully drawing to a conclusion.”

Wars take unforeseen turns, and it remains possible that a new cycle of mass violence in Iraq could be triggered by any number of remaining sectarian tensions or political conflicts. But at this quieter stage of the war the U.S. has turned clearly in the direction of ending its combat involvement.

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