TOKYO, (AP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Tuesday that he saw no need to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country.
His comments came a day after tens of thousands of Iraqis took to the streets of two Shiite holy cities, demanding that U.S. forces leave the country. The rally, called by rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, marked the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.
“We see no need for a withdrawal timetable. We are working as fast as we can,” al-Maliki told reporters while on a four-day trip to Japan. “To demand the departure of the troops is a democratic right and a right we respect. What governs the departure at the end of the day is how confident we are in the handover process.”
What counts, he added, are “achievements on the ground.”
Al-Maliki has repeatedly rejected setting a timeline for U.S. troops to withdraw. He has said it remains impossible to say when his forces will be able to take up full responsibility for security. Beyond that, his government, without the support of the United States, is perilously weak and could easily fall without American backing, both politically and militarily.
Al-Sadr ordered Monday’s march as a show of strength not only to Washington but to Iraq’s establishment Shiite ayatollahs as well. He issued a statement Sunday urging his Mahdi Army militia to redouble efforts to expel U.S. forces and for the police and army to join the struggle against “your archenemy.”
Al-Maliki’s visit to Japan came two weeks after Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi was in Tokyo and said U.S.-led coalition forces should not be withdrawn until Iraq’s army is fully trained and ready to take over security.
President Bush and Congress have been wrestling over legislation that would set timelines for troop withdrawals.
Bush asked for more than $100 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. Congress has approved the money, but the Senate added a provision calling for most U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraq by March 31, 2008. The House version demands a September 2008 withdrawal. Bush has said he would veto any legislation that includes deadlines.
On Monday, Japan and Iraq signed off on $862 million in loans from Tokyo for four projects to repair Iraqi oil processing and export facilities, rebuilding a fertilizer plant and power sector reconstruction. On Tuesday, they added on two more loans worth $485 million for water and electricity projects.
Japan agreed to provide the loans for the projects between October and December 2006.
Al-Maliki also met with Emperor Akihito and thanked Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma for Japan’s efforts in support of Iraq, and he urged Japanese companies to come back to do business there.
Japan backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and provided troops for a non-combat, humanitarian mission in the southern city of Samawah. It withdrew its ground forces in July 2006 but has since expanded Kuwait-based air force operations. Last month, Japan’s Cabinet approved a two-year extension of its air mission in Iraq after it expires in July.
Al-Maliki’s arrival was delayed several hours by Iran’s refusal to let him use its airspace.
Members of the delegation traveling with al-Maliki said the Iranians informed his pilot that the plane could not enter their airspace because they had not been notified in advance.
The plane was diverted to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where al-Maliki stayed in the airport for more than three hours while his aircraft was refueled and a new flight plan was filed.