WASHINGTON — A day after President Barack Obama said that the U.S. was on track to pull its troops out of Iraq by 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said Thursday that that timeline could change "if the Iraqi forces required further training and support."
Maliki's comments at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan peace-promoting organization established by Congress, came during a second packed day in Washington for the Iraqi leader, which included meetings with lawmakers, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and a visit to Arlington National Cemetery.
He's to meet Friday with Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Chamber of Commerce officials.
Administration officials see Maliki's first U.S. visit since Obama took office as another step toward normalizing relations with Iraq, as the U.S. transitions from the war it initiated to topple Saddam Hussein's regime to an era of fostering self-governance through democracy.
In Iraq, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for January, Maliki has been emphasizing increasing independence from the U.S., politically and militarily.
Still, his answer to a question about whether he foresaw a situation in which the new status of forces agreement might need to be renegotiated underscored how tentative the situation remains.
Maliki said through a translator that the security relations between the U.S. and Iraq were based on the agreement, under which "in 2011 the military presence of the Americans will end."
However, he allowed, "if the Iraqi forces required further training and further support, we shall examine this then at that time, based on the needs of Iraq. And I am sure that the prospects and the desire of such cooperation are found among both parties."
"The nature of that relationship, of the functions and the amount of forces, will be then discussed and re-examined again," he said.
U.S. officials are pushing Maliki to do more to quell tensions among the country's major ethnic groups — the Sunni Muslim Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Muslim Arabs — in order to encourage stability. Maliki continued to say Thursday that his country is on a path toward national reconciliation.
He said tensions between Kurds and Iraqis as a whole "cannot be solved by force" and "must be resolved constitutionally." He said that Iraq had faced regional resistance to the notion of democratic governance and that the nation must draw its strength from "the rule of law." He also said that reports of tension between the U.S. military and Iraq had been overblown.
He defended his tenure, saying that he'd inherited the problems of corruption and terrorism, fomented by the prior regime in Iraq and by the disarray of war.
"I do not want to depict a rosy picture," Maliki said. "We do still have challenges to face." However, he said, "Today, Iraq has become a peaceful, democratic country."
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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq.