By Sudarsan Raghavan and Dan Eggen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
BAGHDAD, July 21 -- Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama conferred with senior Iraqi leaders, U.S. officials and military commanders Monday, as a spokesman for the Iraqi government declared that it would like U.S. combat forces to complete their withdrawal by the end of 2010.
The comments by spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh mark the second time in recent days that a senior Iraqi has endorsed a timetable for U.S. withdrawal that is roughly similar to the one advocated by Obama. Dabbagh suggested that a combat force pullout could be completed by the end of 2010, which would be about seven months longer than Obama's 16-month formulation.
Dabbagh made the statement after Obama's meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has faced pressure from the White House in recent days to clarify published comments that he supported Obama's 16-month plan.
Dabbagh said that his government is working "on a real timetable which Iraqis set" and that the 2010 deadline is "an Iraqi vision."
"We can't give any schedules or dates, but the Iraqi government sees the suitable date for withdrawal of the U.S. forces is by the end of 2010," he told reporters.
The White House responded quickly to Dabbagh's remarks, which along with Maliki's earlier comments have been a thorny political problem for an administration that has opposed attaching firm dates to troop withdrawals as it negotiates the future U.S.-Iraqi relationship.
"We don't think that talking about specific negotiating tactics or your negotiating position in the press is the best way to negotiate a deal," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said, suggesting that Dabbagh was responding to domestic pressure.
Obama's visit comes at a time when American troops levels, the timing of withdrawal and overall U.S.-Iraq strategy have become central issues in the U.S. presidential campaign, as well as in Iraqi politics.
Dabbagh said Maliki did not discuss troop withdrawals with his visitor. "Senator Barack Obama is a candidate, and we are talking to the administration which is in power," he said. But in many ways -- from the red carpet rolled out at Maliki's residence to Obama's seat of honor next to Maliki during formal consultations -- he was treated like a visiting head of state.
The White House said Friday that Maliki and President Bush had agreed to set a "time horizon" for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops. But administration officials have steadfastly declined to indicate what that time horizon might be, saying only that it will be based on security conditions on the ground.
Perino said Monday that an agreement with "an aspirational time horizon" could include dates of when Iraqi security forces should be able to take control of given provinces. At the same time, she said: "It will not have any discussion about troop levels. The next commander in chief is going to have to make those decisions."
U.S. officials have emphasized in recent days that the security gains in Iraq are reversible. "I think that they think they've done very well over this past year," Perino said of the Iraqis. ". . . But they have got a long ways to go, and I think that they recognize that. They know that the American troops have been critical to helping them get where they are."
Over the weekend, Maliki appeared to support Obama's time frame in an interview published by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. After the interview began generating headlines Saturday, officials at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad contacted Maliki's office to express concern and seek clarification on the remarks, according to White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Later in the day, the U.S. military distributed to media organizations a statement by Dabbagh saying that Maliki's comments, which his own office translated from Arabic, had been "misunderstood and mistranslated." It did not cite specific comments.
But by Monday, Maliki's office had posted on its Web site the Arabic version of the Der Spiegel interview. It was clear that Maliki, without prompting, expressed support for Obama's position.
"Obama's remarks that, if he takes office, he would withdraw the forces within 16 months, we think that this period might increase or decrease a little, but that it might be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq," Maliki said, according to a translation by The Washington Post.
"Obama is closer to Iraqi opinion on the issue of withdrawal of U.S. forces," said Ali al-Adeeb, a top official in Maliki's Dawa party. "We don't know him personally, but we like his opinion and his calls to set a timetable to withdraw forces."
The senator from Illinois arrived in Iraq on Monday morning, traveling as part of a congressional delegation that includes Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), both critics of the war.
The U.S. delegation's first stop in Iraq was the southern city of Basra, where the Iraqi army -- with support from U.S. and British troops -- recently wrested control from extremist Shiite militias. The senators did not venture into the city center, where about 30,000 Iraqi soldiers patrol the streets.
Instead, they remained at the Basra base for about three hours, receiving what Maj. Tom Holloway, a British military spokesman, called a "situational update" from British, Iraqi and U.S. military commanders.
Gen. Muhammad Jawad Huweidy, the top Iraqi military commander in Basra province, said Obama did not discuss troop withdrawals or Iraqi troop readiness, instead focusing on Basra's economic conditions.
In Baghdad, a red carpet with yellow trim was unfurled at 1:50 p.m. outside Maliki's residence. Ten minutes later, the senators and their entourages arrived, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and David M. Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator. After meeting with Maliki for nearly an hour, Obama declined to say what they discussed.
Obama's convoy arrived next at the residence of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Talabani, chief of staff Naseer al-Ani and two other senior advisers were waiting to greet the senator.
After that meeting, the delegation visited with Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi. They discussed Iraq's political and security conditions, displaced Iraqis and Iraqi forces' readiness for U.S. troops to withdraw, according to a statement from Hashimi's office.
Members of Obama's group later said he suggested in the meeting that to build on the reduction in violence and help Iraqis prepare to increase their responsibilities, the United States must responsibly remove its combat brigades and leave no permanent bases. Obama also expressed support for giving U.S. troops immunity from Iraqi prosecution while they are in Iraq.
The delegation also met Adel Abdul Mahdi, the Shiite vice president. Obama later toured the U.S. military hospital inside the Green Zone and took a helicopter ride over Baghdad with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, with whom he was to dine.
The delegation began its trip with two days in Afghanistan, then flew to Kuwait.
Obama, a first-term senator who is seeking to persuade voters that he has enough foreign policy experience to succeed in the Oval Office, is scheduled to travel to Jordan, Israel, Germany, France and Britain by the end of the week.
Interviewed on NBC's "Today" show on Monday morning, Obama's Republican rival, Sen. John McCain, said he "was glad" Obama was meeting with Petraeus and hearing firsthand about the buildup of U.S. troops over the past year.
"I hope he will have a chance to admit that he badly misjudged the situation, and that he was wrong when he said the surge wouldn't work, and admit that the surge has succeeded and that we are winning the war," McCain said.
Eggen reported from Washington. Special correspondents Qais Mizher, Zaid Sabah, Aziz Alwan and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.