Reuters | July 7, 2008

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki raised the prospect on Monday of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of negotiations over a new security agreement with Washington.

It was the first time the U.S.-backed Shi’ite-led government has floated the idea of a timetable for the removal of American forces from Iraq. The Bush administration has always opposed such a move, saying it would give militant groups an advantage.

In a statement, Maliki’s office said the prime minister made the comments about the security pact — which will replace a U.N. mandate for the presence of U.S. troops that expires on December 31 — to Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates.

“In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq,” the statement quoted Maliki as saying.

“The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal.”

It said Maliki, who is on an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, was responding to questions from the ambassadors about the security talks with the United States.

U.S. officials in Baghdad had no immediate comment. Last month Maliki appeared to catch Washington off guard when he said talks on the security deal were at a “dead end”. Both sides later said progress was being made.

Maliki, dismissed as weak and ineffective for most of his tenure since taking over as prime minister in May 2006, has been increasingly assertive in recent months.

He has launched crackdowns on Shi’ite militias and also al Qaeda militants, with U.S. forces playing a mainly supporting role.

He has also called on Arab states to re-engage with Iraq.

Sunni Arab countries have long been reluctant to extend full legitimacy to the Iraqi government because of the U.S. presence, as well as Baghdad’s close ties to non-Arab, Shi’ite Iran.

But Arab ties have begun to improve.

ARAB SUPPORT

The United Arab Emirates has cancelled almost $7 billion of debt owed by Baghdad, officials said on Sunday. And Jordan’s King Abdullah is expected to visit Baghdad soon, the first Arab leader to do so since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The statement from Maliki’s office did not specifically refer to the 150,000 American troops in Iraq, but they comprise the vast bulk of foreign forces in the country.

By referring to a memorandum of understanding, Maliki’s comments indicate this might be used as a stop-gap measure to govern the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq as opposed to the formal Status of Forces Agreement currently being negotiated.

It was unclear if a memorandum of understanding would need parliamentary approval. Iraqi officials had said they would submit any formal SOFA deal to parliament, where it might be the subject of acrimonious debate.

Maliki has long come under pressure from the movement of powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. Sadr’s movement quit Maliki’s government last year when the prime minister refused to do so.

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