SPEAKING after talks in Baghdad on Monday, US presidential candidate Barack Obama said the puppet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had expressed support for a US troops pullout by 2010.
Obama, who was on a two-day trip to Iraq, also sought to butter-up the hawks by claiming he had not anticipated how well the murderous US troop ‘surge’ would work, ‘in combination with local factors’.
‘The prime minister (Maliki) said that now is an appropriate time to start to plan for the reorganisation of our troops in Iraq – including their numbers and missions,’ Obama said in a statement released by his Senate office.
And in a joint statement released with fellow senators Jack Reed and Chuck Hagel, during their stopover in Iraq, he added: ‘He (Maliki) stated his hope that US combat forces could be out of Iraq in 2010’.
Obama, on an international tour to tout his commander-in-chief credentials, has vowed to pull most combat troops out of Iraq within 16 months if elected – a timeline slightly shorter than Maliki’s preferred date.
His Republican rival for the US presidency, Senator John McCain, has slammed the idea of what he calls artificial timetables for a US withdrawal, and says a longer term presence is vital to preserve recent security gains.
Obama met Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Baghdad after arriving on Monday.
Maliki briefed Obama on recent progress in achieving security and stability, an Iraqi government statement said.
‘Iraq has succeeded in overcoming many difficulties and security challenges. It has achieved victory over al-Qaeda and militias and now aims to achieve economic success,’ Maliki claimed to Obama according to the statement.
‘I congratulate you on the achievements of your government . . . I am supportive and committed to preserving the gains the Iraqi government achieved under your leadership,’ the statement in Arabic quoted Obama as saying.
Hours after their meeting, an explosives-filled tractor blew up in central Diyala province, killing seven members of a local ‘anti-Qaeda’ group and wounding eight others, police said.
Earlier on Monday, Obama was in the southern capital of Basra where he met Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the number two US commander in Iraq.
His visit sparked fresh debate in the US presidential race, with Obama appearing to concede some ground on the ‘surge’, which he opposed and of which McCain was a vocal champion.
Obama told ABC News he ‘did not anticipate, and I think that this is a fair characterisation, the convergence of not only the surge but the Sunni awakening in which a whole host of Sunni tribal leaders decided that they had had enough with Al-Qaeda, in the Shia community the militias are standing down to some degree.
‘So what you had is a combination of political factors inside of Iraq that then came right at the same time as terrific work by our troops.
‘Had those political factors not occurred, I think that my assessment would have been correct.’
Maliki and US President Bush are said to have agreed to include a ‘time-horizon’ for the withdrawal of US forces in a security pact still being negotiated.
On Monday, the White House again insisted the ‘pact’ would not include a specific date for a pullout.
‘What it will not do is have any sort of date tied to combat troops, like how many American troops would be in Iraq at X date. That would not be included,’ spokeswoman Dana Perino said.
The pact was expected to include an ‘aspirational date’ for Iraqis to control security in all 18 provinces.
Perino later said the pact would be delayed beyond July 31, its target date.
Obama, who was due to travel on to Jordan and Israel later on Tuesday, said Iraqis ‘want an aspirational timeline, with a clear date, for the redeployment’ of US forces, adding that while they were appreciative of their sacrifice ‘they do not want an open-ended presence of US combat forces’.
McCain said on Monday that the Baghdad visit would show Obama he was wrong to oppose the troop surge, and he hoped his White House rival would ‘admit that he badly misjudged the situation’.
British Prime Minister Brown also said British forces in Iraq will undergo a ‘fundamental change of mission’ at the beginning of next year, as troop numbers reduce.
‘Just as last year we move from combat to overwatch, I would expect a further fundamental change of mission in the first months of 2009,’ he said in the House of Commons on Tuesday after his visit to Baghdad and Basra last weekend.
‘We will continue to reduce the number of British troops in Iraq,’ he said, while insisting that all decisions will be based on advice from military commanders on the ground.
Some 4,100 British troops are still in Iraq, mainly shored up at Basra Airport near the southern port city.
Brown’s plan to reduce numbers to about 2,500 earlier this year were abandoned after the flareup of the insurgency earlier this year.
Brown gave no details of the ‘change in mission’ on Tuesday, but said military commanders on the ground expected that control of the airport, where the bulk of the British forces are holed up, would be handed to the Iraqis ‘by the end of this year’.