Maliki Hints at Withdrawal Timetable

BAGHDAD -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki raised the prospect on Monday of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of negotiations over a new security agreement with Washington.

It was the first time the U.S.-backed Shiite-led government has floated the idea of a timetable for the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq. The Bush administration has always been opposed, saying it would benefit militant groups.

In a statement, Maliki's office said the prime minister made the comments about the security pact -- which will replace a UN mandate for the presence of U.S. troops that expires on December 31 -- to Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates.

"In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq," the statement quoted Maliki as saying.

"The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal."

U.S. officials in Baghdad had no immediate comment.

Maliki, dismissed as weak and ineffective for most of his tenure since taking over as prime minister in May 2006, has been increasingly assertive in recent months.

He has launched crackdowns on Shiite militias and also Sunni Islamist al-Qaida gunmen, with U.S. forces playing a mainly supporting role.

He has also called on Arab states to re-engage with Iraq.

Sunni Arab countries have long been reluctant to extend full legitimacy to the Iraqi government because of the U.S. presence, as well as Baghdad's close ties to non-Arab, Shiite Iran.

But Arab ties have begun to improve.

The statement from Maliki's office did not specifically refer to American troops, but U.S. forces comprise the vast bulk of foreign forces in Iraq. There are around 150,000 U.S. troops in the country.