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Al-Maliki Demands Timetable For Iraq Withdrawal


This week, Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, demanded that the U.S. set a timetable for withdrawing military forces. Political pressures within Iraq are widely seen as the reason for al-Maliki's demand which comes as the U.S. and Iraq are negotiating what the future U.S. presence in Iraq will be. That's after the U.N. mandate runs out at the end of the year. Kenneth Katzman is senior analyst on Iraq policy for the Congressional Research Service. He joins us from his office. Mr. Katzman, welcome.

Dr. KENNETH KATZMAN (Specialist in Middle East Affairs, Congressional Research Service): Thank you. Glad to be with you.

WERTHEIMER: Is insisting on a timetable in any agreement an effort to strengthen Iraq's bargaining position in negotiations with the U.S?

Dr. KATZMAN: Well, I think it's more an effort by the prime minister to solidify his own political base. Several blocs in the parliament do not want this agreement at all, or at the very least arguing that it's an infringement of Iraqi sovereignty. Although I suspect that's not the real reason why they oppose it. He's trying to show that he's not being just simply told what to do by the United States.

WERTHEIMER: Does this have something to do, as well, with the election coming up?

Dr. KATZMAN: Definitely, because Maliki is with a Shiite bloc that is definitely threatened by the prospects of the Muqtada al-Sadr faction. The Sadr faction is highly popular with poor Shiites in the Shiite southern regions and in Baghdad as well. And Maliki, I think, is trying to show that he's listening to the Sadrists' concerns.

WERTHEIMER: Now, he broached the idea before a group of regional ambassadors on a visit to the United Arab Emirates. Do you think he's feeling pressure from other Arab regimes, as well, to set an endpoint for U.S. military presence?

Dr. KATZMAN: No, I don't get that sense. But I think he is getting pressure from the Iranians. Iran views this as a U.S. attempt to basically complete or continue its encirclement of Iran. Iran views this as a U.S. attempt to secure bases from which the United States can easily conduct an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Iran views this as securing U.S. interests to be able to send covert operatives and Special Forces into Iran for missions. Iran has a tremendous fear of this agreement, and it's trying to work mainly through the Sadr faction to undermine the agreement.

WERTHEIMER: Well, with all of that in mind, how serious would you say that the timetable is that the Iraqi government is proposing?

Dr. KATZMAN: I don't think it's serious because I think Maliki knows the United States would never agree to a firm timetable.

WERTHEIMER: So do you think in fact he does not want U.S. forces to leave?

Dr. KATZMAN: Oh, no. He does not want U.S. forces to leave. His faction, the Supreme Council - which is an allied Shiite faction - the Kurds, and a few other factions, they want the United States there because in their view, the United States is defending them. The United States is keeping them in power. And as long as the United States is there, these challenging factions such as Sadr, such as Sunni insurgents, etcetera, can't have any chance of toppling Maliki. So of course he wants us to stay there.

WERTHEIMER: Kenneth Katzman is senior adviser on Iraq policy for the Congressional Research Service. Mr. Katzman, thank you very much.

Dr. KATZMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.