By Ernesto Londoño and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
BAGHDAD, July 8 -- Iraq's national security adviser said Tuesday that his government would not sign an agreement governing the future role of U.S. troops in Iraq unless it includes a timetable for their withdrawal.
The statement was the strongest demand yet by a senior Iraqi official for the two governments to set specific dates for the departure of U.S. forces. Speaking to reporters in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie said his government was "impatiently waiting" for the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"There should not be any permanent bases in Iraq unless these bases are under Iraqi control," Rubaie said, referring to negotiations over a bilateral agreement governing the future U.S. military role in Iraq. The agreement, if approved, would go into effect when a U.N. mandate expires in December.
"We would not accept any memorandum of understanding with [the U.S.] side that has no obvious and specific dates for the foreign troops' withdrawal from Iraq," Rubaie said.
U.S. officials said the remarks, along with a similar statement Monday from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, were aimed at local and regional audiences and do not reflect fundamental disagreements with the Bush administration.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said specific withdrawal dates are not part of the talks. He added: "We have great confidence that the political leadership in Iraq would not take an action that would destabilize the country."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he anticipates continued drawdowns of U.S. troops from Iraq as the country's security forces take charge. But despite pressure from the Iraqi government for a withdrawal timeline, Gates said further troop reductions will depend on conditions on the ground.
"As the Iraqi security forces get stronger and get better, then we will be able to continue drawing down our troops in the future," Gates told reporters Tuesday during a visit to Fort Lewis, Wash. "However long that takes really will depend on the situation on the ground. But things are going very well at this point."
The outcome of the negotiations on the future role of U.S. forces in Iraq is almost certain to have political consequences for Maliki and other Iraqi leaders with close ties to the United States. Many Iraqis are opposed to the presence of U.S. troops in their country, and the debate has become a key wedge issue as Iraqi politicians gear up for provincial elections scheduled to take place in the fall.
Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, perhaps Maliki's most formidable Shiite opponent, is staunchly opposed to the presence of U.S. troops and has vowed to designate a band of his militia, the Mahdi Army, to attack the Americans.
"If the occupation forces leave today, the situation will improve tomorrow for two reasons," said Nasar al-Rubaie, a senior Sadrist member of parliament. "The first is that the occupation is like a magnet for terrorism." The second, he said, was that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion placed American forces close to Syria and Iran, "and that caused negative reactions that made Iraq pay the price."
The Bush administration has long opposed a firm timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, arguing that the American military should leave only when Iraq's security forces can secure the country and that setting a pullout date would allow insurgents to lay low until after U.S. troops were gone.
At the same time, Bush has often said he would go along with the Iraqi government's wishes. "It's their government's choice," Bush said in May 2007. "If they were to say, 'Leave,' we would leave."
U.S. officials say the Iraqi army and police have made great strides in recent months. But the forces remain heavily dependent on the U.S. military, which has been providing training, air support and millions of dollars' worth of weapons, vehicles and aircraft.
Shiite parliament member Ali al-Adeeb, a close ally of Maliki, said the Iraqi government is proposing that the withdrawal of U.S. troops be linked to the handover of security responsibility for the provinces, the Associated Press reported.
Iraq has assumed primary responsibility for security in nine of Iraq's 18 provinces, but U.S. troops continue to operate freely throughout the country.
Iraq is proposing that U.S. troops withdraw from all Iraqi cities once the United States has handed over responsibility for security in all provinces, Adeeb told the AP.
Also on Tuesday, a U.S. soldier was killed about 9:30 a.m. west of Baghdad when a roadside bomb struck his vehicle, the military said in a statement.
In northeastern Baghdad, a U.S. soldier and an interpreter were wounded when an explosive device landed in a small outpost shared by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, the U.S. military said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the military said Tuesday that four contractors were killed and eight were wounded Monday afternoon south of the northern city of Mosul when a roadside bomb struck their convoy. An Iraqi security official said the contractors were Iraqis working for the U.S. government.
Eggen reported from Washington. Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.