When is a “Timetable” Not a “Timetable”?

On Friday, the Bush Administration and the government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq signed a Memorandum of Understanding that would set a “time horizon” for “operational goals” of withdrawing US forces from Iraq.  If this sounds a lot like a “timetable for withdrawal,” that’s because it is.  In the second major policy reversal in a week, the Bush administration moved away from pressuring the al-Malaki government from signing a status of forces agreement that would have seen the establishment of a large, permanent US military presence in Iraq.

In an interview with the German daily Der Spiegel, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki argued on Saturday that “the tenure of coalition troops in Iraq should be limited” because “artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems.”  With timeframe does al-Maliki favor?  According to him, 16 months should be about right, with the “possibility of slight changes” depending on conditions on the ground.  Others in the Iraqi government say that five years is more realistic.  The agreement itself contains no specific dates.

The US currently has 15 brigades comprised of approximately 145,000 soldiers on the ground in Iraq.  The Iraqi government would like to see a shift in forces from combat operations to support operations, and a gradual drawdown of forces.  Immunity provisions, which prohibit prosecution of US troops by the Iraqi government for anything they might do while stationed there, have also been a source of controversy. 

The Memorandum of Understanding does not have to be forwarded either to the Iraqi Parliament nor the US Congress for ratification.  For its crafters, this is a good thing.  Given the unpopularity of the agreement in both countries, approval would be difficult.

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