July 9, 2008

Iraq to U.S.: No Long-Term Deal Unless Timetable Set

By Richard Wolf and Jim Michaels

WASHINGTON -- The Iraqi government's desire to set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops represents a lesson for the Bush administration: Be careful what you wish for.

The White House has long sought an Iraqi government that can protect and govern its people independently. Having made progress on the first front, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki now says he wants deadlines for a U.S. departure -- something Washington considers too risky to set.

Al-Maliki's plan was detailed further Tuesday by his national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, who said Iraq won't sign a long-term security deal with the United States without specific troop-withdrawal dates.

Bush administration officials were careful Tuesday to emphasize that Iraq has the right to determine its future, while also making clear their belief that atimeline would be a bad idea.

"Iraq is a sovereign country, and we are there at their invitation," said Tony Fratto, the White House deputy press secretary. Yet "the Iraqis don't want a situation where coalition forces leave and the country descends into chaos," he added.

"We have been opposed and remain so to an arbitrary withdrawal date," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, in Japan with President Bush for the Group of Eight industrialized nations summit. "This is politics. This is negotiations. This is their country," she added.

State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos noted that U.S. forces have already transferred more than half of Iraq's provinces to Iraqi control and are readying to remove the fifth "surge" brigade this month. That will leave 15 combat brigades in Iraq.

"We want to withdraw. We will withdraw. However, that decision will be conditions-based," Gallegos said. "We're looking at conditions, not calendars here."

The Bush administration is trying to wrap up negotiations by July 31 on a security pact that would set conditions for a relationship between the USA and Iraq in the years to come. However, this latest disagreement over such a key point could mean that a long-term deal won't be wrapped up until the next U.S. president takes office.

The more likely scenario may be a short-term deal of a few months or more, said Dan Senor, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority that preceded Iraq's elected government.

Senor said President Bush could also consider agreeing to a timetable for troop withdrawals that is tied to "a variable" such as the readiness of Iraq's forces.

In Baghdad, Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament close to al-Maliki, said U.S. negotiators have talked about a five-year "horizon" for the withdrawal of troops. Gallegos refused to divulge details of the negotiations.

"Even when the prime minister is talking about two or three years, it doesn't mean every single soldier has to leave," al-Askari said. "The hot issue now is the combat troops."

In Washington, Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who for a year led efforts to train Iraq's army and police, is to testify to the House Armed Services Committee today. The Iraqi forces have improved, "but some form of partnership is still necessary," he wrote prepared testimony. "The Iraqis know this."

Several experts on Iraq said al-Maliki may be trying to show that he is a strong leader capable of standing up to the U.S. They also said his words appeared to be directed at Iran, which does not want an agreement that gives the U.S. a base from which to attack.

Al-Maliki is "trying to balance what America wants with what Iran is demanding of him," said Judith Yaphe of the Institute for National Strategic Studies.

Nazar Janabi, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former Iraqi Army officer and defense official, said the Iraqis "will not push the Americans out of the country unless they are absolutely certain that they can maintain the country, and they are at least a couple of years away from that."

Contributing: Paul Wiseman in Japan (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>