Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Iraq Leaders Demand Timeline For U.S. Departure

Iraq said for the first time yesterday that it wanted to set a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops from its territory.

President Bush has long resisted a schedule for pulling his 145,000 soldiers out, arguing that it would play into the hands of insurgents. Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister, who boasted last week that he had crushed terrorism in the country, suggested that it was time to start setting time-lines.

“The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or to put a timetable on their withdrawal,” Mr al-Maliki said during a visit to the United Arab Emirates. He rejected efforts by Mr Bush to hurry through an agreement on vital issues such as the immunity of US troops in Iraq and use of the country’s airspace. Mr Bush had hoped to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) by the end of July to establish the basis for a long-term presence of US troops in the country.
The Iraqi parliament has bridled at pushing through such a binding deal with the outgoing and unpopular Bush Administration, saying that the negotiations have been secretive and could undermine Iraq’s sovereignty. “I don’t know anything about this agreement and neither does parliament,” said Ezzedine Dawla, a Sunni MP. “We’re going to pass something we don’t know anything about.”

Mr al-Maliki’s announcement showed a growing self-confidence that Iraqi leaders can stand up to their powerful ally. His oil minister said last week that leading Western oil companies would not be allowed to set conditions for future deals over Iraq’s main natural resource. The tough stance also comes before Iraqi provincial elections later this year, and may mark the start of the Prime Minister’s campaign to be reelected. His popularity was bolstered by military operations to take back the southern oil city of Basra and the town of al-Amarah from Iranian-backed Shia militias.

His comments may also hint at future cooperation with Barak Obama, the Democratic candidate, who has promised to pull US troops out of Iraq within 16 months, although Mr Obama has since appeared to waver on the commitment.

“The negotiations are continuing with the American side,” Mr al-Maliki said, reflecting the desire of many MPs to wait until a new administration is in the White House, and Iraq’s provincial elections are over, before making any deal. The agreement would govern such issues as immunity for US troops from prosecution, the use of Iraqi airspace, and which side takes operational control for military missions against insurgents.

Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish MP, said that the issue of immunity for US forces had become a particularly sensitive subject for Iraqis. “We have suffered so much from immunity. Immunity equals committing crimes. In the name of immunity they have killed people, they have their own prisons, they captured Iraqis. We can’t continue like this,” he said.

Haidar al-Abadi, a close aide to the Prime Minister, said that the US had wanted complete control of Iraqi airspace, since Iraq still had no air force. Mr al-Abadi said that the Government had rejected the demand. “Air-space will be decided by the Iraqi Government,” he said.
In a rebuff to the Mr al-Maliki the Pentagon said any timetable would be articifical and withdrawal would depend on conditions on the ground.

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