BERLIN, (AP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki says U.S. troops should leave Iraq “as soon as possible,” according to a magazine report, and he called presidential candidate Barack Obama’s suggestion of 16 months “the right timeframe for a withdrawal.”
In Baghdad, however, the chief spokesman for al-Maliki issued a statement Sunday saying the prime minister’s comments were “not conveyed accurately” by Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine.
Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said al-Maliki did not endorse a specific timetable but instead discussed a “an Iraqi vision” of U.S. troop withdrawals based on negotiations with Washington and “and in the light of the continuing positive developments on the ground.”
The Der Spiegel article, released Saturday, quoted al-Maliki as giving apparent backing to the withdrawal plans discussed by 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 a we’re concerned.”
In the interview, al-Maliki said he was not seeking to endorse Obama.
Sadiq al-Rikabi, an adviser to al-Maliki, said later that Iraqi officials do not intend to be “part of the electoral campaign in the United States.”
“We will deal with any administration that comes to power,” he said.
White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said Saturday: “In the interview, the Prime Minister made clear that any decision will be based on continuing positive developments — as he and the president both did in their joint statement yesterday. It is our shared view that should the recent security gains continue, we will be able to meet our joint aspirational time horizons.”
On Friday, the White House announced that President Bush and al-Maliki had agreed to set a “general time horizon” for bringing more U.S. troops home from the war.
Obama’s Republican presidential rival, John McCain, has supported Bush administration policy opposing a set timetable for taking troops out of Iraq.
“Barack Obama advocates an unconditional withdrawal that ignores the facts on the ground and the advice of our top military commanders,” McCain foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann said Saturday. “John McCain believes withdrawal must be based on conditions on the ground.
“Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today. Timing is not as important as whether we leave with victory and honor, which is of no apparent concern to Barack Obama,” Scheunemann said in a statement.
Just days ago McCain told reporters on his campaign bus that Maliki “has exceeded a lot of the expectations.”
“I think that much to the surprise of some Maliki has proved to be a more effective leader,” McCain said Tuesday in New Mexico.
The national security adviser to the Obama campaign, Susan Rice, said the senator welcomed al-Maliki’s comments.
“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.
McCain has criticized Obama for his lack of experience in the region. The Arizona senator 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.