Maliki: As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.
SPIEGEL: Is this an endorsement for the US presidential election in November? Does Obama, who has no military background, ultimately have a better understanding of Iraq than war hero John McCain?
Maliki: Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic. Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. Of course, this is by no means an election endorsement. Who they choose as their president is the Americans' business. But it's the business of Iraqis to say what they want. And that's where the people and the government are in general agreement: The tenure of the coalition troops in Iraq should be limited.
SPIEGEL: In your opinion, which factor has contributed most to bringing calm to the situation in the country?
Maliki: There are many factors, but I see them in the following order. First, there is the political rapprochement we have managed to achieve in central Iraq. This has enabled us, above all, to pull the plug on al-Qaida. Second, there is the progress being made by our security forces. Third, there is the deep sense of abhorrence with which the population has reacted to the atrocities of al-Qaida and the militias. Finally, of course, there is the economic recovery.
SPIEGEL: Critics have accused you of striking harshly against the Mahdi army of Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, while going easy on his rival Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim's Badr militia.
Maliki: That's not true. We proceed just as firmly against anyone who breaks the law. Just a few days ago, we had an incident with a group associated with the Badr people. The army moved in immediately and arrested them all. No one was spared. The punishment is based purely on the nature of the crime, not on the identity of the criminal.
SPIEGEL: In southern Iraq, where you come from, you have been compared with Saddam Hussein when it comes to harshness.
Maliki: That's the sort of thing that people say who don't understand how urgently Iraq needs stability -- or these people prefer instability. We don't want to spread fear and terror in Iraq. We have, for example, given the militias several deadlines to hand over their weapons. Their resistance was tremendous, so we had to oppose them with tremendous force of our own.
SPIEGEL: What role do you envision for your chief rival, Muqtada al-Sadr? Can there ever be national reconciliation in Iraq without his participation?
Maliki: You can only reconcile with someone who wants to reconcile. His Excellency Muqtada al-Sadr can be a political partner, especially if, to that end, he draws on the great spiritual legacy he has inherited from his ancestors. He has understood that his following was eventually infiltrated by criminal elements, by men from the former regime, al-Qaida people and others. The fact that he is now in the process of systematically separating himself from these elements makes him even stronger as a political partner. As a politician, I might add, not as a militia leader.
SPIEGEL: You spent part of your exile in Iran, and you have visited the country several times since you took office. Can you explain to us what the leaders in Tehran are up to? Are they building a nuclear bomb? Do you see this as a serious threat?
Maliki: I have not been made privy to the details of the Iranian nuclear program. Iranian representatives assure us, however, that this program serves peaceful purposes. Even if Tehran wanted to develop a nuclear weapon, it would take a very long time, simply from a technical standpoint. It is obvious that our region is far too fragile for even a single country to possess nuclear weapons, because it will always be an incentive for other countries to also build their own.
SPIEGEL: Exactly 50 years ago, the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown and a republic established. But we didn't see any celebration of this event at all. What does that day mean for the history of Iraq?
Maliki: There may have been people who celebrated. But certainly not all Iraqis. On July 14, 1958, and era came to an end, but what came afterwards didn't live up to our expectations and hopes. What came were decades of military putsches and the dictatorship. We are still dealing with the aftermath today.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, your job is probably one of the most dangerous a politician can have. How do you cope with this, and what do you do to make it bearable?
Maliki: I lead a very simple life -- one that is shaped by external forces, which is apparently what fate has determined for us Iraqis. In that regard, the past few decades of dictatorship have not changed all that much. What keeps me going? The constant exertion of my job -- and the successes we are now having. It means a lot to me to see how much closer we are today to a democratic Iraq, one that respects human rights, than we were only a few months ago.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Interview conducted by Mathias Müller von Blumencron and Bernard Zand in Baghdad