What Iraq's Maliki Says About Troop Withdrawal

Sen. Barack Obama got a red-carpet greeting in the Green Zone. The Democratic presidential contender, who was in Baghdad Monday, was seated one-on-one with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the end of his marble-lined salon, while Obama's senate colleagues sat at the side with the aides. But the greatest gesture of Iraqi hospitality came just after Obama and the Americans had zipped off in their convoy of armored SUVs. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told a scrum of the assembled press that the Iraqi government hopes U.S. combat troops can go home by the end of 2010 – perhaps leaving advisers and trainers behind. It puts the Iraqis' schedule – or at least in their publicly-stated preference—close to the mid-2010 date that Obama has proposed. And it is a timeline–something the Bush administration has opposed until just last Friday, when it allowed that a "time horizon" might be plausible.

Maliki aides brushed off questions about whether the date was discussed by the prime minister and the presidential contender during their talks. Also sitting in the meeting were key administration figures on Iraq U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and top adviser for Iraq David Satterfield, as well as Republican Senator Chuck Hagel and Democratic Senator Jack Reed, D-RI. But the 2010 timeline seemed to catch embassy staff off guard later as they called back to verify the comment when NEWSWEEK requested an American response. They could be expected to be a little frustrated. Maliki's office had spent much of the weekend trying to clarify his stand on troop withdrawals after a German magazine reported that he endorsed Obama's timeframe – an apparent break with President George W. Bush, who has been a staunch Maliki supporter.

There's growing support within Maliki's Shiite Muslim constituency for a timetable on a U.S. departure as the government seeks to consolidate power without interference from outside. But Maliki surely also realizes that, for now, he relies on American backing—most recently seen in March with the crucial support U.S. troops gave his forces when they faced tough fighting the southern city of Basra. Maliki could also be hedging his bets in case Obama is the next president. Al-Dabbagh called the 2010 date an Iraqi "vision" that could be reconsidered based on circumstances.

Either way, perhaps it's no surprise that Obama strode out of the hour-long meeting with Maliki calling it "a very constructive discussion." The candidate made no other comment at the time but was expected to do a television interview later tonight—perhaps the only in-depth exchange he will have with media while on the Iraq leg of this week's Middle East and European tour.

The entourage zipped away from Maliki's ceremonial residential palace – he lives in a more modest home next door – in a convoy of dark SUV's. Obama traveled with the other Senators in an armored navy blue Chevrolet Suburban that, like the others, had the usual security directive on the back: "Warning. Stay back 100 meters." Exiting the Green Zone, they made the five-minute trip to the palace of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Obama greeted a waiting Talabani, a pivotal leader in his mid-70s who has taken two recent trips for medical care in the United States, saying, "So glad to see you. I hope you are well." That meeting took place on the banks of the Tigris River in a home that Iraqis say was used by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday.

It's been a whirlwind war zone tour for the candidate eager to establish his foreign policy gravitas – and who opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He spent Sunday in Afghanistan, which he says should be first priority in the fight against terrorism, and flew into the Iraqi city of Basra Monday morning, where American-backed government forces took control of the city from Shiite militias in March. In addition to the meetings with Iraqi luminaries, he was expected to meet with Crocker, U.S. troops and Gen. David Petraeus, who gave Obama a helicopter tour of the city. During Petraeus's term as commanding general, he has frequently led reporters on helicopter flights intent on showing the normal life activities – like soccer games and rush-hour traffic – that have increased as violence as dropped to its lowest levels in four years. Obama has said that, if elected, he will listen to Petraeus and other commanders about the pace for withdrawing troops. Republican opponent John McCain, who backed Petraeus's surge plan, says withdrawals should be tied to the growing capabilities of the Iraqi government and improved security—a position echoed by Iraqi leaders until recently. But now it seems the Iraqis are making their new preferences known.