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Top Iraqis Seek Timetable For U.S. Withdrawal

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, to Iraq and a development in talks over the status of U.S. forces there. Today, Iraq's national security adviser said his country will not agree to any new pact on U.S. forces unless it includes a timetable for withdrawal. His assertion amplified comments made yesterday by the Iraqi prime minister, and the issue could have major implications for Baghdad and Washington. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro joins us now on the line from the Iraqi capital.

And, Lourdes, I understand the comments today by the Iraqi national security adviser were stronger than those made yesterday by the prime minister.

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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's comments yesterday, basically, it was the first time that we've heard about this. He said basically that they were looking for a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Mouwaffak al-Rubaie spoke to reporters in the holy city of Najaf today, and he amplified the statement. He said, quote, "Iraqis are waiting impatiently for the day when the last foreign soldier leaves Iraq" and that the talks were focused on dates and clear horizons determining the departure of U.S. forces.

Ali Adeeb is an adviser to the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki. We spoke to him about this. And he told us that right now, the discussions are centering around when Iraqi forces will be ready and when Iraqis will have full security control of all of Iraq's provinces. He says Iraq envisions U.S. forces leaving in about three years. The U.S., he says, has countered with a vision that says most troops might leave by 2015, seven years down the road. That's quite a wide discrepancy.

NORRIS: So on one hand, we have these public assertions, but are you able to get a handle on what's actually going on in the negotiations behind closed doors?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's been very difficult to get the substance of these negotiations confirmed. The U.S. is saying very little about the details of these talks, and different Iraqi sources tell us things that are often conflicting. The one thing that we know is what they say publicly, and this very public move on the part of the Iraqis that they want a clear timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal is quite significant.

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NORRIS: We have heard reaction from the White House in response to Prime Minister Maliki with the administration saying that these talks with Iraq are not about, quote, "a hard date for withdrawal." So are we facing a bit of an impasse here?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: A State Department spokesman said today, we will withdraw. However, the decision will be conditions based. We're looking at conditions, not calendars here. But there are impasses on many different things between the United States and Iraq. It's not only these talks about a possible date for troop withdrawal. There are discussions and disagreements on any number of issues to do with immunity for Iraqi troops here, to do with if U.S. forces can detain Iraqis here. So we're seeing these negotiations proceed very, very torturously.

NORRIS: And they proceed with an administration here in the U.S. that is facing an end date with the election November and the inauguration in January.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've already seen these negotiations be downgraded initially. This was - they said that they were going to be negotiating a status of forces agreement, which is a long-term formal agreement between two countries. And now, they're talking about some kind of memorandum of understanding, a short term, lesser deal.

And many of the Iraqi politicians that I've spoken to have said, we don't know if we want to be negotiating this with an administration that is heading out the door. There are elections in the United States, and perhaps we can get a better deal with the next president of the United States.

NORRIS: And their election is coming up in Iraq also. Is that part of the benefit of Maliki speaking up like this?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Absolutely. Provincial elections are coming up, and the issue of sovereignty and Iraqi nationalism is playing big. Prime Minister Maliki has been acting like an assertive tough leader for months now. He's been advertising himself as having taken on the militias with his offensives in Basra, as having taken on al-Qaida in Iraq, and now he's talking about taking on the Americans. So he is definitely positioning himself here for these upcoming elections in the fall.

NORRIS: Thank you, Lourdes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro speaking to us from Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.