It couldn’t come soon enough. President Bush agreed with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday to a “general time horizon” to have Iraqis take control of their own security, and thus reduce U.S. forces in Iraq.
President Bush finally responded days after the initial overture by the prime minister, who let it be known that the Iraqi government would be reluctant to sign an agreement formalizing the status of U.S. troops in Iraq unless it included a timetable for the eventual withdrawal. A new agreement is needed because the U.N. resolution authorizing the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops in Iraq is due to expire at the end of the year.
President Bush would like the agreement concluded this month. As The Associated Press reported, “The two leaders agreed that improvements in security should allow for the negotiations ‘to include a general time horizon for meeting aspirational goals, such as the resumption of Iraqi security control in their cities and provinces and the further reduction of U.S. combat forces from Iraq,’ the White House said.” The aim is to set dates for transition of responsibilities and missions, not set goals for troop levels.
Speaking to Arab ambassadors at a meeting July 7 in the United Arab Emirates, Maliki said: “The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal.”
Making it clear that this was not just an off-the-cuff or unguarded remark, Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari reiterated the position later in the week.
Despite the fact the Bush administration has consistently opposed the idea of a timetable for withdrawal when suggested by Democrats or other critics of the war, one might have thought it would have been more pleased by such a statement. It indicates the Iraqi government is feeling strong enough and independent enough that it doesn’t believe it needs the crutch of U.S. troops much longer. That has been the ostensible goal of U.S. policy for a long time.
If the Iraqi prime minister feels pressured to talk about a timetable, it suggests that not only Iraqi public opinion as measured by polls of the entire population but nearly all factions in Iraq are eager to see an end of the U.S. occupation and a return to full Iraqi sovereignty.
It is possible that some of the dire consequences predicted by advocates of a longer-term U.S. occupation — civil strife, rejuvenation of al-Qaida in Iraq, perhaps even a civil war — could happen after a U.S. withdrawal. But the Iraqis, in effect, are saying they don’t think the consequences will be so dire, and they are prepared to face them.
Taken in conjunction with a prediction by Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who is in charge of building Iraqi security forces, that Iraq’s army and police will be fully manned and operational by mid-2009, this should be a signal for the United States to begin preparing as soon as possible for an orderly withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq.
It might take as long as the 16 months Democratic nominee Barack Obama has predicted it will take if he is elected. But it should begin quickly. Tomorrow would not be too soon.