(Reuters) – Iraq raised for the first time this week the prospect of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces as part of negotiations over a new security deal with Washington. Following are answers to questions about the issue:
WHAT HAS IRAQ ACTUALLY SAID?
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki first floated the idea on Monday without being specific. His national security adviser went a step further on Tuesday, saying Baghdad would not accept any deal with the United States unless it included dates for the withdrawal of foreign forces. The government spokesman countered that any timetable would depend on security conditions on the ground. Other Iraqi officials, unwilling to comment on the record, have suggested it is too soon to talk about details, saying negotiations on the security deal are not that far advanced. This suggests the specifics of any troop withdrawal timetable are far from being decided within Iraq’s government.
“I don’t think Maliki is very keen to set a timetable for withdrawal,” said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group. “They (the government) still know very well how much U.S. support they need for military operations.”
SO WHY FLOAT THE IDEA?
Iraq’s Arab neighbors — sensitive to any U.S. military presence on Middle Eastern soil — have long been reluctant to extend full legitimacy to Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government partly because of its heavy reliance on American soldiers.
Iraq is also expected to hold local elections later this year and publicly setting a timetable for U.S. troops to leave would be good political strategy. One of Maliki’s main domestic opponents, the movement of anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, quit the government last year when the prime minister refused to set a withdrawal deadline. That said, many Iraqis are ambivalent about the presence of U.S. forces — they want them gone but not before they feel the country is secure enough.
“They know they can do it without real punishment because the Bush administration is a lame duck and Maliki knows the Americans have no alternative to him,” added Hiltermann.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE U.S. REACTION?
President George W. Bush has kept quiet. Officials from the White House and State Department have said Washington opposed setting dates for a withdrawal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he expected to pull more troops from Iraq as local forces improve, playing down any calls for a withdrawal deadline.
HOW GOOD ARE IRAQ’S SECURITY FORCES?
Iraq’s forces have grown, totaling 560,000, including army, police and other units. But many units can only function with U.S. military assistance. In late June, Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. military commander in Iraq, said Iraqi forces were not ready to take full responsibility for security and combat operations in any part of the country. Iraq has formally taken over security control in nine out of the country’s 18 provinces, all in safer Shi’ite and Kurdish areas.
WHAT ABOUT MALIKI?
Since taking office in May 2006, critics have largely dismissed Maliki as a weak, ineffective and sectarian leader. But Maliki, a Shi’ite Islamist, has launched operations against both Shi’ite militias and Sunni Arab militants in recent months. That has won him support from Sunni Arab politicians, even though some see the crackdown on Shi’ite militias as an attempt to marginalize his Shi’ite opponents ahead of the elections.
Maliki has not been shy about speaking his mind. Last month he caught U.S. officials off-guard by saying the security talks with Washington were at a “dead end”.
“In the end I think the Americans look at him as strong and bold, which is what Iraq needs at this stage,” said Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiya, an independent but senior member of the Maliki’s Shi’ite Alliance.