London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Colonel Steven Boylan, spokesman for David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, has warned that “it is too early to talk about the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.” He told Asharq Al-Awsat that statements by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki and his government’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, regarding the possibility of withdrawing US troops from Iraq by 2010 “are more of an ambition,” stressing that “we are still working on a timetable based on circumstances on the ground rather than arbitrary timetables.” Boylan stated that the US military leadership is not planning for full withdrawal at present,” but admitted that “talk about this matter has become more exciting as a result of political developments’ in Washington” – a reference to the US presidential elections.
The visit of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama to Iraq on has raised discussion on the possibility of US withdrawal from Iraq by 2010, which is the time-horizon Obama has promised if he is elected president of the United States.
In a statement issued by his office at the Senate in Washington, Obama stated that he supported the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq by 2010, and a joint statement with his colleagues Senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel, said: “the Iraqi prime minister has said that it is time to begin reorganizing our forces in Iraq, including their number and mission, adding that Al-Maliki “expressed his hope to see the US troops withdrawn from Iraq by 2010.” The joint statement of the senators went on to say that “the Iraqis want … a definite date for the redeployment of US forces.”
Boylan commented by saying that the US military leadership “cannot work on orders from more than one commander-in-chief at the same time” – a reference to the different positions of President George Bush, who refuses to have a timetable and that of Obama, demanding the withdrawal of one or two brigades every month, if he wins the elections and becomes president of the United States. Colonel Boylan added that while the military leadership assesses the security situation in Iraq, the Multinational forces will continue their work.” He stressed that “our mission remains unchanged, and we are not planning for withdrawal of all troops.” He explained that “as the security situation in a certain region stabilizes the mission of the forces changes from combat to help in building the country and delivery of services to Iraqi citizens.” He stressed that “we are watching the security situation and the possibility of new problems, but we are also concentrating on building Iraqi capabilities.”
Colonel Boylan said that Petraeus will submit his “assessment of the situation in Iraq by the end of August or beginning of September to the military leadership and the US President.” He pointed out that Petraeus will submit his proposals to the US Administration, not to Congress, which means that unlike September 2007, when Petraeus submitted his report to the Congress, the presidential candidates Senators Barack Obama and John McCain will not have the opportunity to express their comments on Iraq.
Boylan concluded his talk with Asharq Al-Awsat about the positions of the two presidential candidates on Iraq by saying: “When a new US Administration comes, it will be able to review our mission. Our mission at present remains unchanged.” He stressed that “the number of ‘combat forces’ compared to ‘support forces’ will be assessed as needed.” He added that “any decision on the number of forces in Iraq will be decided after the proposals” which Petraeus will submit to the US Administration by the end of this summer.
American and British military commanders are concentrating on training Iraqi forces and making them combat-ready in order to withdraw foreign forces from Iraqi cities. Meanwhile, negotiations between the US and Iraq continue on the security agreement which will replace the United Nations mandate of the Multinational Forces by the end of 2008. This raises the question of the nature and time- horizon of foreign forces’ stay in Iraq.
Replying to a question by Asharq Al-Awsat on Obama’s statement on a timetable for withdrawal of US troops and the impact of that on current US-Iraq negotiations, Hasan al-Sunayd, a leading figure in the United Iraqi Alliance and a close associate of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, stated that “Obama’s visit to Iraq cannot be regarded an official visit and he is not part of the US team negotiating with Iraq on the agreement.” He stressed that “the negotiations between the United States and Iraq are continuing and the agreement will be in three parts. The first will be on cultural and technical cooperation; the second on the time horizon for withdrawal of foreign troops; and the third on authorization of military operations and the framework for coordination in matters of detail.” Last Friday, Prime Minister Al-Maliki agreed with President Bush on a time horizon instead of a definite timetable, which the negotiators are working on at present.
The British Government will also have to negotiate with the Iraqis on the stay of British forces after the expiry of the UN mandate. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stressed that British forces will stay beyond 2009. He told the House of Commons that the British mission in Iraq will be “fundamentally changed in the first months of next year,” and that he will continue the gradual withdrawal of British troops. A spokeswoman for the British Ministry of Defense [MoD] told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the prime minister was clear in that we will continue training Iraqi forces, developing Basra airport and continue our assessment of the situation there.” She added that “it is unclear what will happen after 2009,” but she confirmed that the British Government will negotiate with the Iraqi Government on a legal framework for the stay of British forces in Iraq.” She added that “we are working on normalization of relations with Iraq, and the agreement with Iraq will be similar to any agreement we have with any developing country.”
Gordon Brown, who visited Iraq earlier this month, told the House of Commons that “as in last year, our mission has changed from a combat mission to a supervisory mission, and I expect a fundamental transformation of our mission in the first few months of 2009.” Brown lauded the improvement in the security situation in Basra where the British forces are deployed; stressing that his government “will continue to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq, which at present stands at 4,100.” He added that military commanders in the field expect to hand the responsibility for Basra airport to the Iraqis by the end of this year.