STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And let's more now to Iraq, which is saying something that the Bush administration may find a bit awkward. The Iraqi government is calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops. The Bush administration has tried to downplay that call but the Iraqi statements have already reignited the debate on the U.S. presidential campaign trail.
We have more this morning from NPR's Michele Kelemen.
MICHELE KELEMEN: 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 the United Nations mandate ends late this year. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has now made clear the invitation won't be open-ended. His national security adviser told reporters that Iraq can't accept any agreement unless it has clear, exact 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.
Mr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Congressional Research Service): That would be a very, very big journey for the administration to sign onto any type of firm timetable for withdrawal.
KELEMEN: The Bush administration argues that the U.S. drawdown should be based on conditions on the ground, not on a timetable that could allow insurgents to simply wait it out and regroup. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos reinforced this view in his briefing yesterday.
Mr. GONZALO GALLEGOS (Spokesman, U.S. State Department): We're looking at conditions, not calendars here. 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.
KELEMEN: The Bush administration and Republicans presidential hopeful John McCain have argued that the so-called surge has worked but the progress is fragile so the U.S. can't 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 Prime Minister Maliki is facing a lot of skepticism about the status of forces negotiations.
Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): The Iraqis have made it very clear, including the meetings I had with the president and foreign minister of Iraq, that it's based on conditions on the ground. I've always said we'll come home with honor and with victory and not through a set timetable.
KELEMEN: Democrat Barack Obama, on the other hand, said it was encouraging to him to hear the Iraqis talk about the need to set out a timeframe for the U.S. to pull out.
Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): 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.
KELEMEN: 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 non-binding one. And as for tying the hands of the next U.S. administration, he sees the Iraqis at least backing off from any long-term deal.
Mr. KATZMAN: The Iraqis are now 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. There's a lot of different possibilities that are still out there.
KELEMEN: And timetables aren't 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.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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