Yesterday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki raised the possibility that a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces would be part of a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement. During an official visit to Abu Dhabi, Maliki told Arab ambassadors “Today, we are looking at the necessity of terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring full sovereignty”:
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.
Later, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel tried to downplay the significance of Maliki’s comments. While acknowledging that any agreement would have “some understanding of time-frames,” Stanzel insisted that “these are not talks on a hard date for a withdrawal.”
Today, speaking with reporters in the Iraqi seminary city of Najaf after a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie essentially responded that, yes, these are talks on a hard date for withdrawal:
There should not be any permanent bases in Iraq unless these bases are under Iraqi control…We would not accept any memorandum of understanding with [the U.S.] side that has no obvious and specific dates for the foreign troops’ withdrawal from Iraq.
The fact that Rubaie made these remarks immediately after having met with Iraq’s senior ayatollah indicates that that they reflect Sistani’s views, or at the very least have his support. Though Sistani has been circumspect in his political involvement, over the past five years he has weighed in on on issues considered to be of specific import to the well-being of Iraq’s Shia community. That he may have done so now would indicate his belief that a firm timetable for American withdrawal is an important condition for Iraqi political progress.
Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, who form a powerful Iraqi Shia constituency, have for years demanded a timetable for U.S. withdrawal. By adopting this condition, Maliki may effectively be co-opting one of the Sadrists’ biggest issues.
President Bush has a choice to make here: Cling to his fantasy of “enduring bases” across Iraq, or respect the overwhelming Iraqi political consensus in favor of a U.S. timetable, and commit to an eventual U.S. withdrawal.