BAGHDAD — The deadlines sound clear enough in the security agreement: U.S. combat troops must be out of Iraqi urban areas by June, and all Americans should withdraw from the country by Dec. 31, 2011.
However, those deadlines have appeared anything but firm to Iraqis over the past week. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh suggested Thursday that Americans might be needed in the country for another 10 years.
And U.S. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top military commander in Iraq, said Saturday that American forces might remain in Iraqi cities after June, despite the deadline in the security agreement.
"The agreement is clear and it didn't give a space for misunderstanding," said Heider al Abadi, a member of parliament close to Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. "This statement is stepping over the limits and authorities of this military leader, and over the constitutional establishments."
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Harith al Obeidi, a lawmaker from a Sunni political bloc, put it this way: "Treaties and pacts among nations are obligations and commitments, but this statement gives the matter a question mark on it."
Many Iraqis already were skeptical that Americans would follow through on the terms of the security agreement. Iraqi leaders insisted on firm withdrawal dates for U.S. forces, and they got them despite reluctance from the Bush administration to set timetables.
Odierno's remarks played into fears that those dates wouldn't be honored.
"To start with, we are not satisfied by that agreement," said Ali Mahmoud Rahdi, 53, a retired Ministry of Trade employee in Baghdad. "These statements made me angry. Iraq will be always unfairly dealt with."
Maliki distanced himself from Dabbagh, saying the comment was a "personal opinion."
Dabbagh backpedaled, too. He said the American press misrepresented his views. He meant Americans might be needed for technical support, he said in a written statement Tuesday.
That didn't spare him from rounds of criticism in the Iraqi press this week, with leaders of several political parties taking aim at him and Odierno for their remarks.
"Odierno's statement is the first of a series of violations of the agreement," said Osama al Nijeifi, a member of parliament from the moderate Iraqiyah List party, in the al Mashriq newspaper.
Both Odierno and Dabbagh couched their comments as frank assessments of the challenges Iraq faces in maintaining the relative stability it developed over the past year. "Surges" of U.S. and Iraqi forces helped; so did a cease-fire from anti-American cleric Muqtada al Sadr's militia and an uprising against al Qaida by Sunni Arab tribes.
"It's important that we maintain enough presence here that we can help them get through this year of transition," Odierno said on Saturday. "We don't want to take a step backward because we've made so much progress here," he added.
Odierno wants to keep some American forces in so-called joint security stations, where they work closely with Iraqi security forces. The American role on those small bases could center on training and providing Iraqis with special assets they lack, such as explosives teams.
That could circumvent the language in the security agreement, which calls on "combat" forces to withdraw from cities and towns by June.
Americans tend to rebut concerns about the withdrawal dates by emphasizing that they'll remain in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government, stressing that any changes to the timelines would be made in cooperation with Iraq. The agreement allows for the withdrawal to take place before 2012, and it could be voided if Iraqis reject it in a national referendum this summer.
"First of all, we're here at the request of the Iraqi government," President George W. Bush said in his visit to Iraq Sunday. "It's an elected government. There are certain benchmarks that will be met, such as troops out of the cities by June of '09. And then there's a benchmark at the end of the agreement.
"As to the pace of meeting those agreements, that will depend of course upon the Iraqi government, the recommendations of the Iraqi military, and the close coordination between Gen. Odierno and our military," Bush said.
Some Iraqis want to give Maliki time to see how he implements the agreement. They gained trust for him over the past few years as he cracked down on militias in Basra, Sadr City and Diyala.
"I don't feel disappointed," said Hassan Hannon, 39, a former Iraqi army officer from Sadr City. "I am interested in the statements of one man, the prime minister; he made a promise and he will keep it."
(Ashton reports for the Modesto (Calif.) Bee. McClatchy special correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this article.)
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