BAGHDAD – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has for the first time suggested establishing a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, a step that the Bush administration has long opposed.
Al-Maliki raised the idea Monday during a visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he spoke with Arab ambassadors about a security pact being negotiated to determine the future U.S. military role in Iraq.
“The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal,” al-Maliki said, according to a statement released by his office. “In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq.”
The comments reflect the political dilemma confronting al-Maliki and other members of his Shiite-led government. Their primary rival in upcoming provincial elections, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is a leading critic of the American presence who has long called for a timetable, a position that is widely popular among Iraq’s majority Shiites.
The talks on the security pact have also raised concerns across the Iraqi political spectrum – and the broader Arab world – about preserving Iraq’s sovereignty and preventing a long-term American presence. Framing the agreement as a memorandum of understanding, possibly including a timetable, may make it more politically palatable, analysts said.
Nasar al-Rubaie, a senior Sadrist lawmaker, welcomed al-Maliki’s suggestion of a timetable, saying that Iraq’s armed forces could take over security duties within a year. “This is an important step in the right path,” al-Rubaie said.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto characterized the al-Maliki statement as consistent with the goals of the Bush administration. “The prime minister is reflecting a shared goal that we have, which is that as the Iraqi forces become a more self-reliant force, we’ll see reductions in U.S. forces,” Fratto said.
The Bush administration has said that a timetable would play into the hands of enemy forces who would lie low until U.S. troops were gone. Instead, top military and administration officials have said that withdrawal decisions must be based on conditions on the ground. Most of the additional “surge” forces sent to Iraq last year are due to leave by the end of this month, leaving about 140,000 U.S. troops.
Indeed, Sadiq al-Rikabi, a top political adviser to al-Maliki, said any timetable would be conditioned on the ability of Iraq’s security forces to secure Iraq, something the government has long said. “In that case, American forces should return home,” al-Rikabi said, adding that there were no discussions so far of specific dates for a U.S. withdrawal.
Al-Rikabi and a U.S. official in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said friendly negotiations on the security pact were continuing. Still, the proposal of the memorandum of understanding suggested that the two sides were far from reaching a long-term agreement, which U.S. officials had hoped would be signed by the end of this month. A U.N. mandate authorizing the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq expires Dec. 31.
At the Pentagon, spokesman Bryan Whitman said negotiations were being handled by the State Department but reiterated the need for a conditions-based approach. “Timelines tend to be artificial in nature,” he said, “and in a situation where things are as dynamic as they are in Iraq, I would tell you that it’s usually best to look at these things as they are on the ground.”
In recent weeks, al-Maliki has spoken in strong terms to domestic and regional audiences, only to have his remarks softened for U.S. consumption by his own advisers or U.S. spokesmen. After he said last month that the negotiations were at a “dead end,” officials in Baghdad and Washington explained that al-Maliki was referring to early U.S. drafts that had since been updated.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has said he will decide by September – when he is due to relinquish his command to Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno – whether additional withdrawals will be possible before year’s end.
The timetable issue is a sharp point of disagreement between the likely presidential nominees. Republican Sen. John McCain supports the administration position and has said that a withdrawal timetable would endanger recent security gains in Iraq. Democratic Sen. Barack Obama has criticized the al-Maliki government for dragging its feet on political reconciliation and said that a timetable would force movement.
Although Obama has long pledged to begin immediately withdrawing combat troops at a rate of one to two brigades a month, completing the process within 16 months, he has recently tempered his position with a promise to consult with U.S. commanders on the ground before taking any action.
The negotiations began in March over two U.S.-drafted agreements that in Iraq have been discussed as a single pact. The first is a status-of-forces agreement that would define the legal protections and responsibilities of U.S. troops; the second is a “strategic framework” that would govern the overall U.S.-Iraq political and military relationship.
Last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said that progress was being made in the negotiations but that many hurdles remained. He said any agreement most likely would last only one or two years and be subject to legislative scrutiny.
If an agreement could not be reached, Zebari indicated that an interim arrangement would be necessary because U.S. troops “cannot stay in Iraq without a legal authorization.”