GWEN IFILL: The debate over when and how U.S. troops withdraw from Iraq has become central to the U.S. presidential campaign, as well as to the political future of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.
For the first time, Maliki this week has begun calling for timetables for pullout, a position that puts him at odds with the U.S., but could help him at home. What’s going on?
For that, we turn to two veteran Iraq analysts. Rend al-Rahim Francke is a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace. She also served briefly as Iraqi ambassador to the United States. And Juan Cole is a professor of history at the University of Michigan.
Welcome to you both.
Ambassador Francke, why is it that Nouri al-Maliki appears to now be supporting withdrawal timetables?
REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE, U.S. Institute for Peace: Now, first of all, the Iraqi officials that I speak to have said it’s not a question of our supporting withdrawal.
We see eye-to-eye with the U.S. administration in understanding that this is not a permanent U.S. presence, that the U.S. presence has to be diminished and over time, that the U.S. troops have to withdraw. So they’re saying what we’re talking about is not very different from what the administration is talking about.
Now, of course this is a matter of putting a good face on the issue, but Maliki has three very good reasons for talking about withdrawal and reduction of troops.
First of all, having clipped the wings of the Sadrists, he now wears the nationalist mantle that the Sadrists have long worn. They have always been perceived as the nationalists within the Iraqi political scene, especially the Shia one. And now that they are sidelined or downsized, Maliki wants to be the nationalist replacement.
Secondly, there’s public opinion. In order to sign a SOFA, to sign some kind of agreement, Maliki has to be seen delivering something to the Iraqi public.
GWEN IFILL: The SOFA being the Status of Forces Agreement.
REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Status-of-forces agreement. So what he delivers to the Iraqi public is that, “We will sign this, but it will also imply a reduction of U.S. troops.”
And finally, there is also a negotiating tactic that Maliki is adopting. But one thing I think needs to be understood is that there is a very delicate balancing act that Maliki has to perform between Iraq’s national security needs, which we have to recognize still require the support of U.S. troops — this is on the one hand — and on the other hand, the need for asserting Iraqi sovereignty, which is paramount for the Iraqi public.
And balancing between those two things is proving to be a challenge for the Maliki government.
Maliki balances U.S., Iraqi demands
GWEN IFILL: Juan Cole, is this a balancing act or is this a significant shift in approach?
JUAN COLE, University of Michigan: Well, it's certainly a significant shift in rhetoric. Maliki has never before called for a timetable for U.S. withdrawal.
His national security council adviser today made an even stronger statement that any memorandum of agreement between the United States and Iraq on the status of U.S. forces in that country would have to include a timetable.
He said that right after meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Najaf, the spiritual leader of Iraq's Shiites. There were big demonstrations, thousands strong, on Friday organized by the Sadr movement, which is still a vital political force, against the Status of Forces Agreement.
And the deputy speaker of parliament today said that he can't imagine the parliament agreeing to a Status of Forces Agreement that allows the U.S. troops in Iraq to function with immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts. So al-Maliki is...
GWEN IFILL: Well, so, Professor Cole, why now? What's the timing about? Is it about internal politics, external politics?
JUAN COLE: It's frustration over the status-of-forces agreement. The U.S. and Iraq were supposed to sign those by the end of July. There are still many issues that have not been resolved in the negotiations.
Iraq is very eager to come out from under Chapter 7 of the United Nations charter. It wants to regain its sovereignty, but it doesn't want to do so at the cost of giving up sovereignty to the United States.
And so Maliki is, as the ambassador rightly said, between a rock and a hard place. He wants to move forward. He wants to maintain Iraq's sovereignty. He wants to maintain the alliance with the United States, but what the U.S. is demanding of him are things that he probably just can't get through his parliament.
U.S. gives Iraqis a muted reaction
GWEN IFILL: The U.S. reaction seems to be a little bit muted, but certainly not in agreement with him on this.
REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Well, you know, there are some reports that say that the United States is not totally in disagreement. And the question is how you frame it, because if the Maliki government insists on a set schedule for withdrawal of troops, then I think they will find some resistance.
On the other hand, this is not what I understand. Maliki, of course, made the statement, which is very provocative, in the UAE on his recent visit, and actually talked about either a withdrawal of U.S. troops or a timetable for drawdowns.
If, in fact, they want to schedule, then I think they will face some resistance from the U.S. negotiators. If, on the other hand, as may actually happen, they talk about a horizon for drawdown of troops and conditionality -- in other words, when such conditions prevail, then troop withdrawal is going to happen -- that is much more realistic and will certainly be acceptable, in some sense, to the U.S.
But I think the timing of it, by the way, is because we are getting closer to the July 31st deadline. And I think the Maliki government feels that we have not come to some kind of closing of the issues and that more time is needed. And I think this is going to come up in the next few days.
Maliki makes bolder moves
GWEN IFILL: Professor Cole, it seems a year ago, probably we were talking to you, when we talked about Nouri al-Maliki, we talked about how weak he seemed and how there was so much speculation about whether he would survive as prime minister. What has happened? He seems to be in a much stronger position now.
JUAN COLE: Well, he's certainly grown into the job. He came to be prime minister from a background, really, in conspiratorial politics in Damascus for 20 years.
And I think initially he just didn't understand what it meant to be a prime minister. He wasn't meeting with the Sunnis in his government. He alienated a lot of people. And he was running interference for the Mahdi Army. Initially, he came to power backed by the Sadr movement.
So as he broke with the Sadrists, as he made a closer alliance with the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, he gained a source of local support that wasn't quite so rejectionist. And he was able to move forward.
I think his military also has improved in its capabilities. He's gained in confidence. So a lot of things have come together. I think also the decline in -- relative decline in violence has given him more room to operate.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the decline in violence. To what degree is he responsible for that? And does that mean that, now that Iraq has the capability to step in, should the U.S. decide to step back?
REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Well, if I may just add to what Juan Cole just said, I think Maliki gained a great deal by his bold move against the Sadrists in Basra, in Sadr City, and his move against the al-Qaida in Mosul.
That resonated very well, especially with the Sunni groups who were not expecting Maliki to move against other fellow Shia, as he did in Basra and Sadr City.
And I think that really bolstered both the confidence in him from the Sunnis, and bolstered his credibility in the country, and also gave him a great measure of self-confidence.
Iraqis gain confidence in security
GWEN IFILL: So Iraqis are ready to step in, should this be serious?
REND AL-RAHIM FRANCKE: Well, Maliki certainly believes that Iraqis are ready to step in. The people around Maliki have said repeatedly that they believe that the army and the police have the capability to step in, perhaps not immediately, but gradually, over a short period of time, they can take over.
GWEN IFILL: Let me quickly ask Juan Cole that same question. Briefly, do you believe that they're ready to step in should this withdrawal threat or promise be serious?
JUAN COLE: Well, they're increasingly ready. It should be remembered that the United States military has all but withdrawn from large numbers of provinces in Iraq and that Iraqi police and military are doing the day-to-day security details in places like Najaf and Karbala, even now in Diwaniya.
There are still some very troubled provinces, Diyala province, Salah ad Din, and even Mosul itself, where I think the Iraqi military is untried.
GWEN IFILL: OK, Juan Cole, Rend al-Rahim Francke, thank you both very much.