MALIKI AND THE TIMETABLE….Is Nouri al-Maliki’s demand for a timetable to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq just a negotiating ploy? Juan Cole presents a few tidbits to suggest that he’s actually quite serious about it:

Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that the chances that a Status of Forces Agreement will be concluded between Baghdad and Washington have declined substantially….Iraqi politicians have told al-Hayat that the request for a timetable came as a result of pressure from Iraqi Shiite clerical leaders who insisted on an affirmation of the principle of national sovereignty in any agreement signed with Washington.

….AFP points out that the demand for a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops is also a campaign pledge for al-Maliki and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in the upcoming provincial elections. In many provinces, the US troop presence is unpopular.

Salah al-Ubaidi of the Sadr Movement told al-Hayat that the Iraqi government is responding to pressure from the Shiite clerical authorities and from the people. He said he doubted that al-Maliki would actually implement his promise to secure a withdrawal timetable.

I remain relatively agnostic on this issue since I don’t read Arabic and don’t have any special insight into Iraqi political intrigue, but if this account (and others) are correct we have four reasons to think Maliki might not be kidding:

  • There’s substantial public pressure on Maliki to set a timetable for withdrawal.

  • “Iraqi Shiite clerical leaders” = Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is also insisting on….something. However, it’s reasonably likely that “affirmation of the principle of national sovereignty” = concrete timetable of some kind.

  • Maliki has made a withdrawal timetable a campaign pledge.

  • The head of the Sadrists, who are responsible for much of the public pressure on Maliki, is essentially taunting him here, suggesting that Maliki talks big but will never stand up to the Americans and get a written promise of withdrawal.

As always, treat this as gossip, the Middle East equivalent of whether Madonna is really getting a divorce. Still, while it might all be kabuki for the rubes, recent events are starting to suggest that the pressure on Maliki to insist on a concrete withdrawal timetable is genuinely intense. This could get interesting.

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