The Iraqi government is now calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, but the Bush administration is trying to downplay those calls despite a re-ignited debate on the presidential campaign trail.
The Bush administration has been trying to negotiate a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq to make sure U.S. troops have the legal right to be there once a United Nations mandate ends late this year.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has now made clear the invitation will not be open-ended. His national security adviser told reporters that Iraq cannot accept any agreement unless it has specific dates for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. That would be hard to swallow for the Bush administration, according to Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service.
"That would be a very big journey for the administration to sign on to any type of firm timetable for withdrawal," Katzman says. "That would be really repudiating the administration's entire strategy."
The Bush administration argues that the U.S. drawdown should be based on conditions on the ground and not on a timetable that could allow insurgents to simply wait it out and regroup.
"We're looking at conditions, not calendars here," State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos says. "We're making progress and are committed to departing, as evidenced by the fact that we have transferred over half of the country's provinces to provisional Iraqi control. And we're planning on removing the fifth and final surge brigade at the end of the month here, if things go according to plan."
The Bush administration and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain have argued that the surge has worked, but the progress is fragile and so the U.S. cannot rush out.
McCain suggested in an interview with MSNBC that the Iraqi calls for a troop withdrawal date may be driven by politics in Baghdad, where Maliki is facing a lot of skepticism about the status-of-forces negotiations.
"The Iraqis have made it clear to me, including meetings I had with the president and foreign minister in Iraq, that it is based on conditions on the ground," McCain says. "That's what I've always said. I've always said we will come home with honor and victory and not a timetable."
Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, on the other hand, said it was encouraging to hear the Iraqis talk about the need to set out a time frame for the U.S. to pull out.
"I think that Prime Minister Maliki's statement is consistent with my view about how a withdrawal should proceed and how a status-of-force agreement should not be structured without congressional input and should not be rushed," Obama says.
Obama and many in Congress are worried that the status-of-forces agreement could tie the hands of the next U.S. president.
Katzman of the Congressional Research Service says the agreement could be written in lots of different ways — with a fairly vague timetable or a nonbinding one. As for tying the hands of the next U.S. administration, he sees the Iraqis, at least, backing off from any long-term deal.
"The Iraqis are now, for the past few days, talking about something very temporary, something interim; there may not be an agreement at all, which means the U.N. mandate might have to be rolled over for another year or six months," Katzman says. "There are a lot of different possibilities that are still out there."
But timetables are not the only thorny issue in the negotiations. Katzman says another dispute is over how much flexibility the U.S. would have to act on its own in Iraq, without coordinating military actions with the Iraqi government.