The White House expressed unhappiness Monday about Iraqi leaders' public backing for Barack Obama's troop withdrawal timetable. And it said that Baghdad may be trying to use the U.S. presidential election as leverage in talks about the future of American's military presence and obligations in the war.
Washington and Baghdad probably will miss a July 31 target for reaching an agreement, said White House press secretary Dana Perino, characterizing the negotiations as "hard-driving."
"We don't think that talking about specific negotiating tactics or your negotiating position in the press is the best way to negotiate a deal," Perino said after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was quoted in a magazine article supporting the 16-month troop withdrawal timeline proposed by Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate. "However, we understand that they're a sovereign country and they'll be able to do that," Perino said. "We're just not going to do it on our end."
Al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, initially appeared to try to discredit the magazine report but on Monday he expressed hopes that U.S. combat forces could be out of Iraq by 2010, the timeframe proposed by Obama. Buoyed by a sharp reduction in violence, Iraqi leaders have become more assertive about the country's sovereignty, giving rise to demands for a specific plan for American forces to leave.
The Iraqi statements suggested that Iraqi officials were setting the agenda on the timing of U.S. troop withdrawals and forcing President Bush to make concessions. "Let's squeeze them," Al-Maliki was quoted by The Associated Press as telling his advisers. Bush last week reversed course and agreed to set a "general time horizon" for bringing home more U.S. troops, based on Iraq's ability to take care of its own security.
"The key issue," Perino said, "is that they understand it will not be arbitrary; it will not be a date that you just pluck out of thin air; it will not be something that Americans say, `We're going to do — we're going to leave at this date,' which is what some have suggested," she said.
The White House acknowledged the Iraqis might be trying to use the election for leverage.
"I think that a lot of other people look through the lens of a 2008 presidential election," Perino said. "Might they be? Sure. I mean, it's possible.
"Do they have their own political — domestic politics that they need to think about? Sure," Perino said. "Dare I say that they actually have domestic politics, but they do. And, so all of those things are being taken into account, but I believe that Ambassador (Ryan) Crocker and Prime Minister Maliki's negotiator are working together in a way that is very serious that they understand the implications."
She said she could not speculate about specific dates for withdrawals. "Whether or not it's 16 months, or later, or earlier, I just don't know."