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Iraq urges 2011 deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal

Maliki wants a date in the status-of-forces deal, a move the US is resisting.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 27, 2008



Washington

Presidential candidates, take note. In recent days the US has seen what it's like to deal with an increasingly assertive Iraqi government a key foreign policy problem with which the next occupant of the Oval Office will likely have to deal.

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The surface dispute concerns the future of US troops in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to insist that all foreign troops leave his country by a specific date in 2011.

The Bush administration wants less-binding language in the status-of-forces agreement it's negotiating with its Iraqi partners.

Underneath, this conflict may reflect subtle shifts in the US-Iraq balance of power. Substantial US withdrawals, perhaps beginning in 2009, now appear assured, says Colin Kahl, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

For the US, the diplomatic question then becomes how it will use its diminishing military leverage to influence the Iraqi government to continue to pursue much-needed domestic political accords.

"In the face of this inevitable withdrawal, what can we do to foster political reconciliation in Iraq?" says Mr. Kahl.

On Aug. 25, Mr. Maliki said in a speech to tribal leaders that the US and Iraq had already agreed to a withdrawal timetable.

Any status-of-forces pact must be based on the principle that "no foreign soldier remains in Iraq after a specific deadline, not an open time frame," said the Iraqi leader.

The US challenged Maliki's assertion. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said any US withdrawal must be linked to conditions on the ground in Iraq.

In addition, US and Iraq differ over whether US troops will have legal immunity from Iraqi law. The status-of-forces agreement must be struck soon, as the UN mandate under which US forces operate in Iraq will expire this fall.

Maliki is under intense domestic political pressure from his allies in Iraq's ruling Shiite coalition to take a strong stand on this issue with the US, says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.

The prime minister and other Iraqi leaders appear to feel a growing confidence that their own security forces have begun to perform well and can soon shoulder even more of the burden of Iraqi security.

It is also possible that Maliki has something else on his mind.Ir

There is a danger that Maliki may have decided to use military power to suppress domestic political opposition and views the continued presence of US troops as an obstacle to that," says Mr. Biddle.

Maliki may want to use Iraqi security forces to crush individual units of the Sons of Iraq, the largely Sunni local groups that have played a large role in the reduction of violence in the country over the last year, according to Biddle.

Biddle warns that Iraqi government forces are becoming so large that there is even a growing danger of an Iraqi military coup.

There is no question what Iraqi security forces have become much more capable of, according to an analysis for Center for Strategic and International Studies military expert Anthony Cordesman.

The US surge provided extra troops for adequate training, writes Mr. Cordesman. And veterans of Saddam Hussein's army have returned to the military. Fifty percent of the current rank and file are veterans of Saddam's forces, writes Biddle.

But there are still serious ethnic and sectarian divisions and tensions in Iraq's army and police. And Iraqi forces still aren't ready for the US to leave.

"The US may be reaping some of the consequences of exaggerating the real progress in Iraqi security forces.

Both Iraqi and US politicians now seem to take such reporting too seriously and be unaware of how much still needs to be done," writes Cordesman.

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