In what appeared to be a bold move, Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declared Monday for the first time that his government may consider a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal of forces. "Today, we are looking at the necessity of terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring full sovereignty," al-Maliki said during a meeting with several Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates. "The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either of the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal." The announcement raised eyebrows among security planners and analysts around the world. Was it posturing? Or was al-Maliki diverging from his American ally? Or both?
Al-Maliki made the announcement amid widespread opposition among the Iraqi government to U.S. demands put forward during ongoing negotiations over the more formal Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The SOFA would create a legal framework for a long-term U.S. troop presence in the country after the U.N. mandate expires in December. The sudden mention of a timetable a concept aggressively supported by al-Maliki's rivals in the Sadrist movement may have come as a shock to Washington.
Or it may not have. The U.S. embassy in Baghdad and the White House downplayed the remarks on Tuesday. "Negotiations and discussions are ongoing every day. It is important to understand that these are not talks on a hard date for withdrawal," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. There is some basis for this relatively calm assessment out of Washington. Last month, al-Maliki said negotiations over the SOFA had reached a "dead end." His Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, later admitted the comment was little more than a negotiating tactic.
But there are also signs that the Iraqi Prime Minister may be seriously veering from his past alignment with the U.S. Waving the stick of a timetable at the U.S. shores up his increasingly positive standing among his countrymen, one that has improved ever since March, when the Shi'ite Prime Minister led a series of bold military offensives to "impose the law" in chaotic militia-dominated cities across the country. Those actions have dispelled sentiments shared by many Iraqis that his administration is weak. "[Maliki] is very strong. He made a decision to bring back security for us, and it was a good decision," says Ahmed Talib, a boat operator in the predominantly Shi'ite city of Basra in southern Iraq. "Now I think most people support Maliki." Even al-Maliki's rivals among the Sadrists praised his latest suggestion of a timetable. "Maliki's announcement reached me yesterday. It was a good announcement, and we salute him," the head of the Sadrist political office, Lewa Smiesem, told TIME. "But I have to emphasize again that there must be a clear vision from the Iraqi government on the ground to confirm such a position. At the end of the day, we will support him if he's really serious on the matter." Even with such caveats, the general support from Iraq's Shi'ite majority for al-Maliki's move is critical as the Prime Minister builds support ahead of elections in October.
Al-Maliki may indeed be showing his true colors. Last month Iraq's speaker of Parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadanni, predicted this shift in the government's negotiating stance with the U.S. "[Maliki's] Shi'ite coalition is publicly with the [SOFA] agreement but secretly against it," says al-Mashhadanni. "They came to power because of an agreement with the multinational forces, and they [have to] thank them for that. But the [long-term] presence of the multinational force will affect their [popular, nationalist] position." (Al-Mashhadanni's own party, the Sunni Tawafuq bloc, has the reverse problem; according to al-Mashhadanni, it secretly wants a long-term SOFA agreement to balance Shi'ite power with a mediating U.S. presence but has to publicly oppose it because of his party's platform against the presence of foreign troops in Iraq.)
Al-Maliki may be further emboldened by his government's improved ties with neighboring Iran, America's biggest regional rival. Between that and a tighter grip on Shi'ite support, the Prime Minister and his men have no reason to admit that the timetable is mere posturing. On Tuesday, Iraq's national security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie reinforced the Prime Minister's statement. "We can't have a memorandum of understanding with foreign forces unless it has dates and clear horizons determining the departure of foreign forces. We're unambiguously talking about their departure," he told reporters in Najaf after a meeting with the Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's top Shi'ite religious authority. It would indeed be ironic if al-Maliki, the man Washington has supported in Baghdad, ends up being the person who tells the U.S. to go.