When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is talking, US officials assume “no” doesn’t really mean no.
That was the message today when Admiral Michael Mullen addressed reporters in Baghdad, warning that Iraq had to start opening discussions about the terms of the continued US presence in the “next few weeks.”
Mullen’s comments came less than 24 hours after a meeting with Prime Minister Maliki, where the Iraqi ruler completely ruled out the prospect of US troops staying past December. Maliki told Mullen he was confident the military was ready to operate without US assistance.
For Maliki the decision is both a political and practical one. The US presence remains unpopular with his constituency, but dramatically moreso with his partners led by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has threatened armed revolt if US troops remain in 2012.
US officials say they are keen on keeping 10,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested this could come in the form of a permanent military base deal. Given the strength of the Sadrist faction, however, many fear that the unrest those 10,000 troops would cause will be far worse than any benefit they might provide in the form of training.