BAGHDAD (AFP) — Insistent demands from the Iraqi government for a firm timetable for the pullout of foreign troops reflect huge pressure from its Shiite majority constituency in the runup to key provincial elections.
The calls have been given strong backing by the Shiite spiritual hierarchy which the mainly religious parties that lead the governing coalition have found almost impossible to ignore.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told Arab ambassadors on Monday that Iraq was demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces as it negotiates a deal with Washington for a military presence beyond 2008.
A day later, after a meeting with Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in the shrine city of Najaf, National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie announced that Iraq would reject any deal that does not contain a timetable for a troop withdrawal.
"There is a reluctance from the clerics to go ahead (with the deal) without seeing the light at the end of the tunnel... without a timetable," said Mahmud Othman, a senior Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament.
"If you notice, Rubaie's comment came after he met Sistani. So there is pressure from the clerics."
Maliki reached an agreement in principle with US President George W. Bush last year to sign a deal by July 31 providing for a continuing US troop presence in Iraq after the UN mandate expires in 2008.
The main sticking points in the negotiations have been how many bases US military would retain in Iraq and for how long, whether US troops would continue to enjoy immunity from Iraqi law and whether they would have the right to detain Iraqis and carry out raids on their own.
Shiite clerics, including aides of Sistani and radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr, have repeatedly denounced the deal while Shiite politicians have called it a path to "eternal slavery".
Iraqi leaders fear that the pact may end up compromising the war-torn nation's sovereignty, something which the government has long battled to assert, whether in the face of the Turkish army's ground incursion against Kurdish rebels in February or in the face of repeated killings of civilians by foreign security contractors with immunity from prosecution in Iraq.
"From the beginning our concern has been to withdraw the troops and make Iraq a sovereign nation," said Jalal al-din al-Saghir an MP from the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, a Shiite religious party which is a key member of the governing coalition.
"The external security situation is stable, the Iraqi forces have proved their ability in maintaining internal security... there is no need for the foreign forces."
Sadr's radical movement, which has long campaigned for an immediate withdrawal of foreign troops, says the pressure on the government from both the electorate and the religious hierarchy is becoming almost irresistible.
"So the government is trying to ease the pressure by asking for a timetable," said Sadr's spokesman in Najaf, Salah al-Obeidi, adding that the movement doubted Baghdad's ability to carry out its declaration.
Washington continues to refuse to set a firm date for the withdrawal of foreign forces, saying any drawdown will be based on conditions on the ground.
"The US government and the government of Iraq are in agreement that we, the US government, we want to withdraw, we will withdraw. However, that decision will be conditions-based," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said on Tuesday.
"We're looking at conditions, not calendars here."
Over the past few months, the US military has been withdrawing the five additional brigades it deployed last year to quell raging sectarian violence but insists that any further withdrawals will depend on the situation on the ground.
The US military currently has around 146,000 troops in Iraq, down from 170,000 when the extra troops were fully deployed, according to Pentagon figures.
Analysts say the Shiite bloc that leads the government has had little choice but to respond to popular demands for a US troop withdrawal with key provincial elections due on October 1.
"It is definitely a bid for greater popularity ahead of the elections," said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East analyst with Brussels-based think-tank, the International Crisis Group.
"While the ruling parties are not eager to see the US go, because they realise they cannot yet stand and fight alone, the people are fed up with the American presence and would rather see the back of them."
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