Al-Maliki Demands Timetable For Iraq Withdrawal

Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demanded this week that the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawing military forces. Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst on Iraq policy for the Congressional Research Service, talks with Linda Wertheimer about the possibility of such an agreement.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This week, Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, demanded that the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawing military forces. Political pressures within Iraq are widely seen as the reason for al-Maliki's demand which comes as the U.S. and Iraq are negotiating what the future U.S. presence in Iraq will be. That's after the U.N. mandate runs out at the end of the year. Kenneth Katzman is senior analyst on Iraq policy for the Congressional Research Service. He joins us from his office. Mr. Katzman, welcome.

Dr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Specialist in Middle East Affairs, Congressional Research Service): Thank you. Glad to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Is insisting on a timetable in any agreement an effort to strengthen Iraq's bargaining position in negotiations with the U.S?

Dr. KATZMAN: Well, I think it's more an effort by the prime minister to solidify his own political base. Several blocs in the parliament do not want this agreement at all, or at the very least arguing that it's an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty. Although I suspect that's not the real reason why they oppose it. He's trying to show that he's not being just simply told what to do by the United States.

WERTHEIMER: Does this have something to do, as well, with the election coming up?

Dr. KATZMAN: Definitely, because Maliki is with a Shiite bloc that is definitely threatened by the prospects of the Muqtada al-Sadr faction. The Sadr faction is highly popular with poor Shiites in the Shiite southern regions and in Baghdad as well. And Maliki, I think, is trying to show that he's listening to the Sadrists' concerns.

WERTHEIMER: Now, he broached the idea before a group of regional ambassadors on a visit to the United Arab Emirates. Do you think he's feeling pressure from other Arab regimes, as well, to set an endpoint for U.S. military presence?

Dr. KATZMAN: No, I don't get that sense. But I think he is getting pressure from the Iranians. Iran views this as a U.S. attempt to basically complete or continue its encirclement of Iran. Iran views this as a U.S. attempt to secure bases from which the United States can easily conduct an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran views this as securing U.S. interests to be able to send covert operatives and Special Forces into Iran for missions. Iran has a tremendous fear of this agreement, and it's trying to work mainly through the Sadr faction to undermine the agreement.

WERTHEIMER: Well, with all of that in mind, how serious would you say that the timetable is that the Iraqi government is proposing?

Dr. KATZMAN: I don't think it's serious because I think Maliki knows the United States would never agree to a firm timetable.

WERTHEIMER: So do you think in fact he does not want U.S. forces to leave?

Dr. KATZMAN: Oh, no. He does not want U.S. forces to leave. His faction, the Supreme Council - which is an allied Shiite faction - the Kurds, and a few other factions, they want the United States there because in their view, the United States is defending them. The United States is keeping them in power. And as long as the United States is there, these challenging factions such as Sadr, such as Sunni insurgents, etcetera, can't have any chance of toppling Maliki. So of course he wants us to stay there.

WERTHEIMER: Kenneth Katzman is senior adviser on Iraq policy for the Congressional Research Service. Mr. Katzman, thank you very much.

Dr. KATZMAN: Thank you.

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Iraqis Call For U.S. Troop Withdrawal Timetable

Capt. Rawlings Takes Your Questions

The stop-lossed soldier answers listeners' inquiries about U.S. policy in Iraq and being mocked for his Ivy League background.

The Iraqi government is now calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, but the Bush administration is trying to downplay those calls despite a re-ignited debate on the presidential campaign trail.

The Bush administration has been trying to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq to make sure U.S. troops have the legal right to be there once a United Nations mandate ends late this year.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has now made clear the invitation will not be open-ended. His national security adviser told reporters that Iraq cannot accept any agreement unless it has specific dates for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. That would be hard to swallow for the Bush administration, according to Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service.

"That would be a very big journey for the administration to sign on to any type of firm timetable for withdrawal," Katzman says. "That would be really repudiating the administration's entire strategy."

The Bush administration argues that the U.S. drawdown should be based on conditions on the ground and not on a timetable that could allow insurgents to simply wait it out and regroup.

"We're looking at conditions, not calendars here," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos says. "We're making progress and are committed to departing, as evidenced by the fact that we have transferred over half of the country's provinces to provisional Iraqi control. And we're planning on removing the fifth and final surge brigade at the end of the month here, if things go according to plan."

The Bush administration and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain have argued that the surge has worked, but the progress is fragile and so the U.S. cannot rush out.

McCain suggested in an interview with MSNBC that the Iraqi calls for a troop withdrawal date may be driven by politics in Baghdad, where Maliki is facing a lot of skepticism about the status-of-forces negotiations.

"The Iraqis have made it clear to me, including meetings I had with the president and foreign minister in Iraq, that it is based on conditions on the ground," McCain says. "That's what I've always said. I've always said we will come home with honor and victory and not a timetable."

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, on the other hand, said it was encouraging to hear the Iraqis talk about the need to set out a time frame for the U.S. to pull out.

"I think that Prime Minister Maliki's statement is consistent with my view about how a withdrawal should proceed and how a status-of-force agreement should not be structured without congressional input and should not be rushed," Obama says.

Obama and many in Congress are worried that the status-of-forces agreement could tie the hands of the next U.S. president.

Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says the agreement could be written in lots of different ways — with a fairly vague timetable or a nonbinding one. As for tying the hands of the next U.S. administration, he sees the Iraqis, at least, backing off from any long-term deal.

"The Iraqis are now, for the past few days, talking about something very temporary, something interim; there may not be an agreement at all, which means the U.N. mandate might have to be rolled over for another year or six months," Katzman says. "There are a lot of different possibilities that are still out there."

But timetables are not the only thorny issue in the negotiations. Katzman says another dispute is over how much flexibility the U.S. would have to act on its own in Iraq, without coordinating military actions with the Iraqi government.

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