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Iraq urges 2011 deadline for U.S. troop withdrawal

Maliki wants a date in the status-of-forces deal, a move the US is resisting.

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Presidential candidates, take note. In recent days the US has seen what it's like to deal with an increasingly assertive Iraqi government a key foreign policy problem with which the next occupant of the Oval Office will likely have to deal.

The surface dispute concerns the future of US troops in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to insist that all foreign troops leave his country by a specific date in 2011.

The Bush administration wants less-binding language in the status-of-forces agreement it's negotiating with its Iraqi partners.

Underneath, this conflict may reflect subtle shifts in the US-Iraq balance of power. Substantial US withdrawals, perhaps beginning in 2009, now appear assured, says Colin Kahl, an assistant professor of security studies at Georgetown University.

For the US, the diplomatic question then becomes how it will use its diminishing military leverage to influence the Iraqi government to continue to pursue much-needed domestic political accords.

"In the face of this inevitable withdrawal, what can we do to foster political reconciliation in Iraq?" says Mr. Kahl.

On Aug. 25, Mr. Maliki said in a speech to tribal leaders that the US and Iraq had already agreed to a withdrawal timetable.

Any status-of-forces pact must be based on the principle that "no foreign soldier remains in Iraq after a specific deadline, not an open time frame," said the Iraqi leader.

The US challenged Maliki's assertion. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said any US withdrawal must be linked to conditions on the ground in Iraq.

In addition, US and Iraq differ over whether US troops will have legal immunity from Iraqi law. The status-of-forces agreement must be struck soon, as the UN mandate under which US forces operate in Iraq will expire this fall.

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