The Iraqi prime minister has raised the prospect of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.
Iraq seeks timetable for departure of US forces
ABU DHABI // The Iraqi prime minister yesterday said his government was seeking an end to the US presence in Iraq on a set timetable, in the strongest sign so far of the growing tension between Washington and Baghdad over their Status of Forces Agreement. "Today, we are looking at the necessity of terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring full sovereignty," said Nouri al Maliki. "One of the two basic topics is either to have a memorandum of understanding for the departure of forces or a memorandum of understanding to set a timetable for the presence of the forces, so that we know [their presence] will end in a specific time." Mr Maliki made his comments at a meeting in Abu Dhabi with Arab ambassadors, during the final leg of a two-day state visit to the UAE. The meeting was aired on Al Iraqiya, the official Iraqi television station. In a response to Mr Maliki's remarks, the Pentagon said the US had made clear "that we have no long term desires to have forces permanently stationed in Iraq", but any timetable for a US withdrawal from the war-torn land would depend on conditions on the ground there. "Timelines tend to be artificial in nature," said Bryan Whitman, a spokesman for the Pentagon. "In a situation where things are as dynamic as they are in Iraq, I would just tell you, it's usually best to look at these things based on conditions on the ground." The Maliki government has been locked in negotiations with the US over the Status of Forces Agreement, which defines the terms under which American troops operate in the country and has been criticised by most Iraqi political blocs as a threat to the nation's sovereignty. Mr Maliki did not elaborate yesterday on the ongoing discussions but said progress was being made. The Iraqis are seeking greater control over US actions, proposing American troops be replaced by a UN mandate and any foreign forces require Iraqi approval to conduct military action. "This means the phenomena of unilateral detention will be over, as well as unilateral operations and immunity," said Mr Maliki, without going into detail. A spokesman for Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, said there were no plans to increase the scale of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. "There is no formal request for a UN mandate other than the existing mandate that we have in Iraq," said Michèle Montas. "At any rate, any decision concerning a change in the mandate of the UN presence in Iraq would be a decision to be taken by the Security Council." Ms Montas said the secretary-general was following all developments in Iraq closely, but had no comment on the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Mr Maliki's government. Mr Maliki's two-day visit was a critical step to boosting his government's support in the region. He met with Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi; Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and ruler of Dubai; and other senior government officials. On Sunday, the Government appointed an ambassador to Iraq, lifting its diplomatic presence in Baghdad for the first time since a UAE diplomat was taken hostage in 2006, and yesterday Mr Maliki urged other Arab countries to have an "active" presence in the Iraqi capital, according to Al Iraqiya. The UAE also said on Sunday it was writing off US$7 billion (Dh25.7bn) worth of Iraqi debt left over from the former regime, becoming the first Gulf country to have completely forgiven such debts and raising the hope other Ara countries would follow suit. "We want the others, everyone from Saudi Arabia to others, to take a similar initiative and for those steps to be courageous," Ali al Dabbagh, Iraq's government spokesman, told Reuters. Sheikha Lubna al Qasimi, the UAE Foreign Trade Minister, yesterday emphasised the Government's readiness to help rehabilitate the Iraqi economy, the official news agency WAM reported. "The UAE is ready to offer required help to rehabilitate the Iraqi economy in order to help the country join the World Trade Organisation," she said during a meeting with the Iraqi trade minister, Abdul Falah al Sudani. Washington welcomed the debt cancellation. "We appreciate the Emiratis' recognition that a secure and prosperous Iraq is in the interests of everyone in the region," said US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. Mr Maliki and his government "should also be applauded for their continued outreach to their neighbours, and their efforts to advance a positive agenda through regional diplomacy", Mr Johndroe said in a statement as George Bush, the US president, attended a summit of wealthy countries in Japan. firstname.lastname@example.org * Additional reporting by agencies and WAM