By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
BAGHDAD, Aug. 25 -- Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded a complete U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq by 2011 as he embarked Monday on an attempt to win support among Iraqi leaders for a draft security accord with the United States.
Maliki's comments appeared to be an attempt to extract further concessions from American officials, less than a week after both sides said they had agreed to remove all U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011, if the security situation remained relatively stable, but leave other American forces in place. The U.S. plan is to leave as many as 40,000 troops to continue to assist Iraq in training, logistics and intelligence for an undefined period.
Speaking before a gathering of tribal leaders in the heavily fortified Green Zone, Maliki said for the first time that the United States had agreed to withdraw all troops -- not just combat brigades -- as part of a security accord governing U.S. forces in Iraq, and that the withdrawal schedule must be firm. But American officials said no accord had been reached and insisted that any withdrawal be based on conditions at the time.
"There is an agreement between both sides that no foreign soldiers will be in Iraq after 2011," Maliki said. He added that the accord "must be based on a specific deadline for the withdrawal of foreign forces and that it should not be open."
His remarks are likely to complicate the debate in the U.S. presidential campaign over how best to conduct an American military pullout from Iraq. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has opposed a firm timeline for withdrawal but suggested that troops be out of Iraq by 2013. Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate, has called for U.S. combat troops to leave by mid-2010.
Maliki and U.S. officials cautioned that differences remained over the complex accord, known as a status-of-forces agreement, and that talks were continuing.
"An agreement has not been signed, and so from our perspective, there is no agreement until there's an agreement signed," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman. "But any decisions on troops will be based on the conditions on the ground in Iraq. That has always been our position; it continues to be our position."
U.S. officials, however, have signaled willingness to compromise with Maliki's government in order to sign an agreement by the end of President Bush's term. There is additional pressure because the United Nations' authorization for American troops to remain in Iraq expires at the end of the year; if no accord is signed before then, U.S. troops will have no legal basis to remain in the country.
Administration officials have expressed frustration as well as admiration for the way Iraqi politicians have negotiated, largely in public and through the media, forcing U.S. negotiators to become more flexible before time runs out to reach a deal, said people familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. U.S. officials now appear willing to accept a specific date for total withdrawal as long as there is some acknowledgement that it be conditional.
"We've been opposed to arbitrary dates on the calendar, especially when things were tough from a security standpoint," said Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman. "As conditions improve, it certainly enables us to have the discussion about goals going forward and where we hope Iraqi security forces will be."
Iraqi officials said last week that U.S. negotiators had agreed to withdraw all combat troops from Iraqi cities and towns by June, and the rest of the country by the end of 2011, depending on prevailing conditions.
But Ali al-Adeeb, a prominent Shiite lawmaker who is close to Maliki, said the Iraqis interpreted the agreement to mean that all forces would leave by the end of 2011. U.S. troops could remain to train and advise Iraqi forces only if the Iraqi government requested it.
"The agreement says that the Iraqi government will decide if the security situation is good or bad and whether foreign troops remain in Iraq, not anyone else," he said. "The Iraqi government could ask the Americans to withdraw before 2011 if we wish."
Maliki said Monday that major differences remain over several issues, and that the text of the accord must be modified before it is sent to parliament.
"Unless they change, it will be difficult to have the agreement approved," he said. "There is still disagreement between both sides."
Mariam al-Raes, an adviser to Maliki, said the two biggest points of contention were over the timelines for withdrawal and the status of immunity for U.S. troops. U.S. officials have insisted that American troops be immune from Iraqi law, both on and off military bases and regardless of whether they are off duty. In his speech, Maliki said that would be unacceptable.
"We will not jeopardize the blood of Iraq's sons by giving open immunity," he said.
Underlying Maliki's remarks is the political reality that he must sell the accord to a fractious political establishment and the Iraqi public, which to a large extent views the U.S. military presence as an occupation that should end as soon as possible.
"The agreement will be met with significant public discomfort," said an aide to Maliki. "So Iraqi officials will resort to using the dates mentioned in the agreement to sell it to the public, even though they might be intended to be used in a guidance way."
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, added: "If you ask the prime minister, 'What happens if the situation on the ground changes before 2011?' then he would obviously say that the dates might need to be changed."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondents Qais Mizher, K.I. Ibrahim and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.