Obama-Maliki controversy over troop withdrawal

Iraq on Sunday denied a report in the German media that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had endorsed senator Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plan.


Iraq on Sunday denied Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had made remarks backing US Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's plan to withdraw troops from the country and demanding a quick pullout.

The German weekly Der Spiegel reported that Maliki in an interview had supported Obama's plan to withdraw most US troops from Iraq within 16 months if he took office next January.

This "would be the right timescale for withdrawal, allowing for minor adjustments," Maliki reportedly told the news magazine in the interview to be published on Monday.

Der Spiegel also said that Maliki demanded that American forces leave Iraq "as soon as possible."

"To date, the United States is struggling to agree on a concrete date for withdrawal because they view such a step as an admission of defeat, which is not the case," Maliki was reported as saying.

But on Sunday Baghdad government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh denied Maliki had made the remarks, saying they had been "misunderstood and mistranslated and not conveyed accurately."

Dabbagh said that any statement by Maliki or member of Iraq's government "should not be understood as support for any US presidential candidate."

In a speech in Washington on Wednesday, Obama said he would withdraw most US forces from Iraq within 16 months starting in January, 2009.

"We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 -- two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began," he said.

Obama said a residual force would continue performing limited missions such as pursuing Al-Qaeda, protecting US service members and training Iraqi forces.

The controversy comes at at time when Washington and Baghdad are negotiating a highly sensitive security pact on the future of American forces in Iraq.

In recent weeks Maliki and other Shiite leaders in Iraq have been demanding that the pact include a timetable for US military withdrawal.

US President George W. Bush has repeatedly denied offering any specific timetable to pull out the troops, but on Thursday he and Maliki agreed to set a "time horizon" for a withdrawal in the pact.

Sticking points in the pact negotiations include how many US bases would remain in Iraq, whether American soldiers would enjoy immunity from Iraqi laws, and whether they could detain Iraqis and launch operations without Iraqi authorisation.

A US official in Baghad close to the negotiating team said Washington and Baghdad had "suspended" the originally envisaged security pact called the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), and were now looking at creating a short-term agreement that would address Iraqi concerns.

"The SOFA as we had in Japan or Germany has been suspended or put aside but not thrown away," he told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He said the two sides are currently negotiating a "security protocol or operational protocol" that contains the key contents of the SOFA but would be for a "certain period of time."

"That does not mean we would not find a more detailed, more general" agremeent later, he added.

Bush and Maliki had set a July 31 goal for an accord on the presence of American forces in Iraq after 2008 when the current UN mandate expires.

The UN mandate is the legal basis for the presence of US-led foreign forces in Iraq.

The US official said it was still possible that a deal would be finalised by end of the month.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning