Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says U.S. troops should leave Iraq "as soon as possible," according to a magazine report in which he also called presidential candidate Barack Obama's suggestion of 16 months "the right timeframe for a withdrawal."
In an interview with Germany's Der Spiegel magazine released Saturday, al-Maliki said he was not seeking to endorse Obama. The Illinois senator and likely Democratic nominee has pledged to withdraw combat troops from Iraq within 16 months if he is elected.
"That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes," al-Maliki was quoted as saying. "Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of U.S. troops in Iraq would cause problems."
Asked when U.S. forces would leave Iraq, he responded, "As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned."
On Friday, the White House announced that President Bush and al-Maliki agreed to set a "general time horizon" for bringing more U.S. troops home from the war, a dramatic shift from the Bush administration's once-ironclad unwillingness to talk about any kind of deadline or timetable.
But Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, told NBC News Friday that the agreement shouldn't be considered a guarantee that American troops could leave even by the end of next year.
The national security adviser to the Obama campaign, Susan Rice, said the senator welcomed al-Maliki's support of Obama's timeframe.
"This presents an important opportunity to transition to Iraqi responsibility, while restoring our military and increasing our commitment to finish the fight in Afghanistan," Rice said in a statement Saturday.
Obama arrived on his first visit to Afghanistan on Saturday, less than four months before the general election. He also is expected to stop later in Iraq.
Obama's Republican presidential rival, John McCain, has criticized him for his lack of experience in the region. McCain has suggested he would pursue an Iraq strategy "that's working" — a reference to the troop buildup credited for sharply reducing violence in the country.
Al-Maliki is scheduled to visit Germany next week for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel and business leaders amid a renewed German push in helping to rebuild Iraq. Berlin had opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Healing sectarian rifts
Earlier, Iraq's largest Sunni Arab political bloc ended a nearly yearlong boycott of the Shiite-led government in another step toward healing the sectarian rifts that once brought almost daily bloodshed.
The National Accordance Front agreed to return after parliament approved six Sunni officials to fill vacant seats in the Cabinet.
But the gesture had wider implications — it was seen as a significant step toward political reconciliation and efforts to cement security cooperation between Shiite-led forces and armed Sunni groups that rose up against al-Qaida in Iraq.
The United States has pressured Iraq's government to work toward reconciliation, hoping it will add stability and ease the burden on U.S. and other foreign forces.
"What happened today is a national step forward to boost the government's role and take the national reconciliation ahead," said the bloc's spokesman, Saleem Abdullah.
Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, hailed the political pact as "a very important step forward."
U.K. troop cuts
On a visit Saturday to Baghdad, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said plans are being made to scale back troops in Iraq, but refused to consider an "artificial timetable" for withdrawing Britain's remaining 4,000 soldiers.
Brown's comments — following meetings with Iraqi leaders — come in advance of next week's scheduled address to British lawmakers on Iraq, when he is expected to give more details on troop reduction plans as insurgent attacks and militia violence drops sharply around Iraq.
No specific troop withdrawal figures have been made public, but a senior British military officer has predicted substantial troop cuts in Iraq next year.
"It is certainly our intention that we reduce troop numbers, but I am not going to give an artificial timetable at the moment," Brown said following talks with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Jalal Talabani.
A departure of more British forces will have little bearing on the battlefield. The troops, mostly based outside the southern city of Basra, no longer have a combat role and are involved mostly with training Iraqi security units.
Britain's moves come about four months after Iraqi opened a major offensive in Basra to root out Shiite militias with suspected links to Iran.
The campaign — which began with disarray among Iraqi forces — ultimately gained ground with U.S. help and reclaimed wide control over Iraq's second-largest city and key oil center.
Although Britain maintains the second-largest foreign military force in Iraq, it is dwarfed by the approximately 150,000 U.S. soldiers currently in the country.
Sunni candidates backed
The break in the Iraqi political impasse came after parliament unanimously backed Sunni candidates to fill the post of deputy prime minister and head five midlevel ministries, including higher education and communications. Four other Cabinet posts were filled by Shiites.
The Front pulled its members from the 39-member Cabinet last August, complaining it was sidelined in important decisions. The political rift left al-Maliki's government without partners in bids to find common ground with Sunni leaders.
Sunni Arabs, who represent about 20 percent of the country, were highly favored under Saddam Hussein but the tables turned after his ouster when Iraq's majority Shiites held sway. The rivalries spilled over into a wave of sectarian killings and al-Qaida bombings apparently aimed at triggering civil war.
But Sunni sheiks last year began to organize militias — later known as Awakening Councils — against insurgents. Their role has been considered key in undercutting al-Qaida networks and helping reduce violence around Iraq to its lowest levels in four years.
The new Sunni Arab cabinet members join two others already in the government: Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi and former Front member Ali Baban, who heads the influential planning minister. Baban was kicked out of the Front for refusing to follow the boycott.
The Front and its allies also hold 44 of the 275 parliamentary seats. They continued to take part in legislative affairs despite the government boycott.
The four new Shiite members of the Cabinet filled posts abandoned last year by followers of the anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. They al-Sadr loyalists walked out after the prime minister refused demands for a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.