Barack Obama described his plan for Iraq in a New York Times editorial. Obama anchored is piece on “the call by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq”. Obama wrote, “we should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States.” The BBC had access to Maliki’s actual press conference and wrote this (emphasis mine):
US presidential contender Barack Obama has repeatedly seized on statements attributed to Iraqi leaders to support his call for a troop withdrawal deadline. The key statement cited by Mr Obama and others was made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki last Monday in his address to Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates. …. It was widely circulated by the news media, and caught much attention, including that of Mr Obama.
There is only one problem. It is not what Mr Maliki actually said.
In an audio recording of his remarks, heard by the BBC, the prime minister did not use the word “withdrawal”.
What he actually said was: “The direction is towards either a memorandum of understanding on their evacuation, or a memorandum of understanding on programming their presence.”
Intrigued by the difference between the press release version and Maliki’s actual remarks, the BBC dug further and found that Iraq’s position was somewhat nebulous. The Status of Forces negotiations are still underway between the US and Iraq and it would have been natural for Maliki to remain vague about a matter that is still under negotiation. The BBC tracked the subsequent changes and found the Iraqi position to suggest both meanings as one would have expected on a matter on which is still under discussion.
Mr Maliki’s own office had inserted the word “withdrawal” in the written version, replacing the word “presence”.
Contacted by the BBC, the prime minister’s office had no explanation for the apparent contradiction. An official suggested the written version remained the authoritative one, although it is not what Mr Maliki said.
The impression of a hardening Iraqi government line was reinforced the following day by comments from the National Security Adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie.
He was quoted as saying that Iraq would not accept any agreement which did not specify a deadline for a full withdrawal of US troops.
Significantly, Mr Rubaie was speaking immediately after a meeting with the senior Shiite clerical eminence, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
But in subsequent remarks, Mr Rubaie rode back from a straightforward demand for a withdrawal deadline.
He said the talks were focused on agreeing on “timeline horizons, not specific dates”, and said that withdrawal timings would depend on the readiness of the Iraqi security forces.
But Barack Obama has taken one point under negotiation and assumed an outcome even though it is an actually still under discussion. He went on to write at the NYT about the “will of the Iraqi people” which he presumably knows in advance:
They call any timetable for the removal of American troops “surrender,” even though we would be turning Iraq over to a sovereign Iraqi government. But this is not a strategy for success — it is a strategy for staying that runs contrary to the will of the Iraqi people, the American people and the security interests of the United States. That is why, on my first day in office, I would give the military a new mission: ending this war.
What happens if the “timeline horizons” that the Iraqi government negotiates with the US are longer than Obama’s plan for withdrawal? The Iraqis could hardly force the US to stay. So a President Obama’s policy would be determinative. If that policy happened to coincide with the “will of the Iraqi people” it would be just ducky. But for the moment Obama hasn’t asked them.