For the first time, Nuri al-Maliki (photo, from topnews.in), Iraq’s prime minister has publicly called for a US troop withdrawal timetable.
On Monday, he said that provisions for the withdrawal of American troops should be included in a military agreement the two countries are negotiating.
Rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides have been negotiating, Mr al-Maliki said, in a meeting with Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates on Monday, that Iraq had proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement.
“Negotiations are ongoing with the US side and the current attitude is to reach a memorandum of understanding either for immediate US forces withdrawal or timetable withdrawal”, he said on Monday.
He added that a formula for the withdrawal of US troops was included in the memorandum “now on the table”.
“The goal is to end the presence [of foreign troops]“, Mr al-Maliki said.
Although the prime minister offered few details, his national security adviser, Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, told The Associated Press that the government was proposing a timetable contingent on Iraqi forces being able to provide security.
Saying it was not negotiating for a “hard date” to withdraw its troops, the Bush administration’s response was muted.
“Negotiations and discussions are ongoing every day”, said Gordon Johndroe, a White House spokesman, on Tuesday in Japan, where George Bush, the US president, was attending the Group of Eight summit.
“It is important to understand that these are not talks on a hard date for a withdrawal.”
But as the UN mandate expires at the end of the year, some kind of agreement is needed to keep US troops in Iraq longer.
Many Iraqi legislators, who are worried that the country’s sovereignty would be threatened by US demands, have criticised the government’s attempt to negotiate a formal status of forces agreement.
Mr al-Maliki’s latest comments could be aimed at trying to blunt opposition in parliament to any deal, or he could also be trying to avoid parliament altogether.
Though in the past he promised to submit a formal agreement with the US to the legislative body, on Monday the prime minister’s spokesman indicated that for a shorter-term interim, the government might feel no need to get approval from parliament.
“It is up to the cabinet whether to approve it or sign on it, without going back to the parliament”, Ali al-Dabbagh said.
The talks over security deal were at a “dead end”, said the prime minister last month, while he was facing growing internal Iraq opposition.
“We have reached a deadlock because, when we started these talks, we found that the US demands hugely infringe on the sovereignty of Iraq, and this we can never accept”, he had said.
But Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’foreign minister, later admitted that the talks have continued, because that statement was a negotiating ploy.
But as Iraq and the US seemingly unable to agree on a range of conditions, negotiations have repeatedly stalled.
A US demand for immunity for foreign security contractors was one of the most contentious issues, but last week, Mr Zebari claimed the US had agreed to drop the immunity demand, subjecting contractors to prosecution under Iraqi law.
Though it is still expressing confidence a deal can be reached, the Bush administration, hoping to wrap up negotiations by the end of July, has backed off that deadline.
And now, neither country appears any closer to signing the deal, with Mr al-Maliki’s latest push for a withdrawal timetable rejected by president Bush.