In an interview with Der Spiegel released on Saturday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made international headlines when he endorsed Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-IL) plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq within 16 months.
On Sunday, however, the U.S. military distributed a vague statement from Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, saying that Maliki’s words had been “misunderstood and mistranslated.” The clarification, however, failed to cite specific examples of errors.
In reality, Iraqi government officials may not have been worried about an error in translation. Instead, it appears that they were pressured by the Bush administration to walk back Maliki’s statements :
But after the Spiegel interview was published and began generating headlines Saturday, officials at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad contacted Maliki’s office to express concern and seek clarification on the remarks, according to White House spokesman Scott Stanzel.
Later in the day, a Maliki aide released a statement saying the remarks had been misinterpreted, though without citing specific comments.
Today, the New York Times casts further doubt on al-Dabbagh’s excuse. The interpreter for the interview worked for Maliki’s office, not Der Spiegel. The Times also double-checked the translation by obtaining an audio recording of Maliki’s interview, which was conducted in Arabic. Directly translated, it reads:
Obama’s remarks that — if he takes office — in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq. … Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.
In the past, the Bush administration has also tried to cite clerical errors to undermine the Iraqi desire for a U.S. withdrawal. Earlier this month when Maliki suggested a timetable for the withdrawal of coalition troops, the State Department dismissed the comments, saying they were likely the result of an inaccurate transcription.
But as Matt Yglesias notes, “Because in fantasytown, the fact that Maliki repeatedly endorses a timetable and keeps being forced by the Bush administration to walk it back undermines the authenticity of his support for withdrawal. Back in realityville, Maliki keeps saying this because he wants us to set a timeline, viewing this as the only politically feasible way forward.”
The AP is reporting that today, after a meeting between Obama and Maliki, al-Dabbagh said that the Iraqi government “is hopeful that U.S. combat forces could be out of the country by 2010.” Watch it: