IRAQ UPDATE….Nouri al-Maliki’s statement to a group of Arab ambassadors yesterday that any security agreement with the U.S. would have to include a timetable for withdrawal of American troops was a little hard to interpret. Was he serious? Just telling Arab leaders what they wanted to hear? Playing for the home crowd? Or what?

Today, his national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, made things clearer:

“We will not accept any memorandum of understanding if it does not give a specific date for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops,” Mr al-Rubaie told reporters in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf.

“Our stance in the negotiations under way with the American side will be strong,” he said, but added that it was proving “very difficult” to set a pullout date.

Needless to say, this is all part of the negotiation process, with Maliki feeling a lot of pressure from Sadrists and others who have successfully used the U.S. occupation as a campaign issue against him. With elections coming up later this year, Maliki doesn’t want to get outflanked on his right.

Still, a public statement this unequivocal suggests that Maliki might actually be serious about this. I’d still give it less than 50-50 odds, but it’s looking increasingly possible that we might end up with some kind of (nuanced, caveatted) timeline for U.S. troop withdrawals before Barack Obama even takes office.

UPDATE: The BBC report linked above says that “Mr al-Rubaie was speaking after meeting Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani” — implying that Sistani may have been responsible for al-Rabaie’s newfound hawkishness. Over at American Footprints, Eric Martin links to a report from Alalam that does more than imply:

The Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most revered Shiite leader in Iraq on Tuesday rejected any security agreement with US, stressing such deal will affect the country’s sovereignty.

In a meeting with Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq Al-Rubaie who was briefing al-Sistani in Najaf on the progress of the government’s security efforts, and the talks on US security deal, Ayatollah said his country will not accept such a security deal which is seeking to justify the illegal presence of US military troops in the war-torn country.

The wording here is odd and no other source has confirmed that Sistani himself said anything about the agreement, so don’t take this too seriously yet. Just think of it as gossip worth keeping an eye on. As Eric puts it, “If Sistani says go, we go.”

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