Iraqi lawmakers support timetable for U.S. withdrawal

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Supporters of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said Thursday that they'd gathered enough support in Iraq's parliament to pass a bill requiring a timetable for U.S. forces to pull out.

The legal or practical implications of an Iraqi law that would attempt to require a timetable for U.S. troops to leave the country were unclear. Even those circulating the legislation said they expected to sort out particulars in parliamentary debate.

But the announcement, on the anniversary of the parliament's swearing-in last year, underscores the difficulty of the American position in Iraq.

Parliament has been unable to reach a consensus on key issues that U.S. officials say are crucial to resolving Iraq's sectarian violence, including measures dividing oil revenues and permitting some former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to hold government jobs.

Al-Sadr supporters, however, said that this week they'd finished collecting 144 signatures—a majority of the 275-member legislature—on a bill demanding a scheduled withdrawal and an immediate freeze on the number of foreign soldiers in Iraq. A similar effort last year drew only 113 signatures, said one Sadrist member of parliament, Salagh Augali.

The bill doesn't spell out what the timetable should be, but backers said their support drew on Sunni Muslim Arab, Shiite Muslim, Kurdish and secular factions in parliament. Augali said its passage would be more than a symbolic act.

"This will make a difference," he said.

In Washington, White House officials reacted skeptically. "The prime minister, the president and the vice presidents of Iraq have made it clear that they think U.S. troops are needed in Iraq," said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council. "We've heard these claims before (from al-Sadr supporters), but they rarely materialize."

It's unclear whether the measure would become law without further approval from Iraq's president or prime minister.

President Bush has fought similar efforts in Congress to impose a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal.

Last week, he vetoed legislation that would have required American forces to begin leaving Iraq later this year, and has said he'll veto any other effort to impose such deadlines. The House of Representatives on Thursday passed legislation that would pay for military operations through September and would tie future money to Iraqi approval by mid-July of laws governing oil revenues, de-Baathification and constitutional reform.

Word of the Iraqi pullout legislation came amid growing signs of dissatisfaction in parliament over the inability of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and U.S. officials to curb violence in neighboring Diyala province. Sunni insurgents tied to the group al-Qaida in Iraq have undertaken a campaign there against Shiite residents.

A parliamentary committee reported Thursday that 11,200 people have been killed in Diyala since 2004. Its report says 9,500 families have been displaced, 8,250 women have been widowed, 16,500 children orphaned and 66 mosques or shrines destroyed in the same period.

When some lawmakers appeared preoccupied as the report on Diyala was being read, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, which represents the parliament's narrow Shiite majority, chastised them.

"You received the report as if it's about the sewage flowing," Shatha al-Mosawi said. "We heard about kids who are given to their families fried after being kidnapped."

Her voice grew angrier when parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni, appeared to smile.

"Why do you smile? Do we laugh at our people or ourselves? Bring the prime minister and the ministers of defense and interior affairs in here," al-Mosawi said. "This is a weak government that can do nothing, and we must call it to account. It's impossible to keep watching."

The speaker responded that he was showing empathy. Last week, he noted, his media consultant's brother was kidnapped and skinned.

"Maybe this is the smile of pain," al-Mashhadani said.

Some lawmakers insisted that al-Maliki be summoned to answer for the problems in Diyala. Al-Mashhadani noted that the parliament already had asked for the prime minister to come, then the speaker turned on his fellow lawmakers.

"Three-quarters of you are responsible for the displacements and the killings," he said. "Don't act as if you are the only patriotic people. The situation has been like this for a year, and now you just realized it? You are the political leaders. Why do you want the prime minister to take all the blame?"

The "Iraq Index" compiled by The Brookings Institution, a research center in Washington, has reported that the number of insurgent attacks has nearly doubled in Diyala to 16 a day, compared with last year, and that attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops leapt 70 percent in the past five months.

Vice President Dick Cheney left Iraq on Thursday after 29 hours there, including a sleepover at the sprawling Camp Speicher outside Tikrit, which made him the highest-ranking U.S. official to have spent the night in Iraq.

Cheney traveled to the United Arab Emirates as part of an effort that also will take him to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to buck up support for American policy in the region.

In a meeting with Maliki on Wednesday, Cheney repeated U.S. officials' warnings that the Iraqi parliament should cancel its two-month summer break to deal with the country's political issues.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.