Comments made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in an interview with SPIEGEL published on Saturday have stirred up the campaign teams of both Barack Obama and John McCain this weekend. And late on Saturday, Maliki tried to distance himself from the statements, saying his comments were misunderstood.
In the interview, Maliki expressed support of Obama's plan to withdraw US troops from Iraq within 16 months. "That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of changes."
Maliki was quick to back away from an outright endorsement of Obama, saying "who they choose as their president is the Americans' business." But he then went on to say: "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."
A Baghdad government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said in a statement that SPIEGEL had "misunderstood and mistranslated" the Iraqi prime minister, but didn't point to where the misunderstanding or mistranslation might have occurred. Al-Dabbagh said Maliki's comments "should not be understood as support to any US presidential candidates." The statement was sent out by the press desk of the US-led Multinational Force in Iraq.
A number of media outlets likewise professed to being confused by the statement from Maliki's office. The New York Times pointed out that al-Dabbagh's statement "did not address a specific error." CBS likewise expressed disbelief pointing out that Maliki mentions a timeframe for withdrawal three times in the interview and then asks, "how likely is it that SPIEGEL mistranslated three separate comments? Matthew Yglesias, a blogger for the Atlantic Monthly, was astonished by "how little effort was made" to make the Baghdad denial convincing. And the influential blog IraqSlogger also pointed out the lack of specifics in the government statement.
SPIEGEL sticks to its version of the conversation.
Maliki's comments immediately hit the headlines of US papers and Web sites across the country, partly the result of a White House employee inadvertently sending out a news alert to its full media distribution list. The White House said it was an error and that it was meant to be sent internally only.
The Obama campaign was quick to welcome Maliki's expression of support, with his top foreign policy advisor, Susan Rice, saying "Senator Obama welcomes Prime Minister Maliki's support for a 16 month timeline for the redeployment of US combat brigades. This presents an important opportunity to transition to Iraqi responsibility, while restoring our military and increasing our commitment to finish the fight in Afghanistan."
In an interview with SPIEGEL published this weekend Rice said: "Obama's view is that circumstances in Pakistan and Afghanistan pose the most dangerous threat to Europe and to the US right now. Al-Qaida is regrouping and reconstituting their safe haven; the Taliban are gaining strength. Europe is closer to that threat than we are. Yet, we all have to take it very seriously. The US has to put more resources and troops into Afghanistan, and NATO should do the same, while, to the greatest extent possible, lifting operational restrictions."
Obama is in Afghanistan this weekend visiting US troops there and met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Sunday. He is expected to travel to Baghdad next for a brief visit before carrying on to Israel, Jordan, Germany, France and Great Britain later in the week. His exact schedule for his trips to Afghanistan and Iraq has been kept under wraps out of security concerns.
The campaign team of John McCain likewise responded to Maliki's comments on Saturday. A statement released by his head foreign policy director Randy Scheunemann blasted Obama for "ignoring the facts on the ground and ignoring the advice of our top military commanders." It also said that McCain and Maliki agree that any withdrawal must be based on the security situation in Iraq. "Prime Minister Maliki has repeatedly affirmed the same view, and did so again today."
Scheunemann also said: "The fundamental truth remains that Senator McCain was right about the surge and Senator Obama was wrong. We would not be in the position to discuss a responsible withdrawal today if Senator Obama's views had prevailed."
In an interview with SPIEGEL, which hit the newsstands this weekend, Scheunemann said: "There is not a single European government that has endorsed an artificial timeline for US withdrawal from Iraq. They understand the consequences of a complete withdrawal from Iraq would be disastrous -- and that our current Iraq strategy is succeeding."
When asked by SPIEGEL about the reasons for the improved security situation in Iraq, Maliki said: "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."
The governments in Washington and Baghdad are currently in negotiations regarding how much longer US troops will remain in the country. On Friday, US President George W. Bush, long opposed to any talk of a timeline for withdrawal, seemed to back away from that position for the first time. He spoke of "a general time horizon" for moving US troops out of Iraq. A US government spokesman said that the White House has spoken with Maliki following the SPIEGEL interview. The spokesman said that Baghdad and Washington shared the view that, should the security situation in Iraq continue to improve, US troops could be moved out of Iraq.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was in Baghdad on Saturday and likewise proved unwilling to talk about a specific timeline for the withdrawal of British troops from Iraq. That message, though, apparently didn't make it to the newspaper Al-Bayan, a publication that is close to Maliki's Dawa Party. Under an image showing Maliki together with Brown, the caption read: "British troops are to withdraw by the middle of 2009."
Other major newspapers in Baghdad on Sunday, including the government affiliated al-Sabah, the independent daily al-Mashriq and Iraq's leading paper al-Zaman quote the SPIEGEL interview at length. There is no mention of al-Dabbagh's statement denying Maliki's support of Obama's withdrawal plans, but it may have come after the papers went to press.
With reporting by Bernard Zand in Baghdad and Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington D.C.