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In Policy Switch, Iraqis Push for U.S. Withdrawal Timetable

For the first time this week, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki said that he expects a pending troop deal with the U.S. to include a timetable for withdrawal. Two Iraq analysts weigh the state of U.S.-Iraqi relations.

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    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.


    The SOFA being the Status of Forces Agreement.


    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.