BAGHDAD, Iraq – The U.S. ambassador and Iraqi prime minister issued a rare joint statement Friday in which Iraq reaffirmed its commitment to a "good and strong" relationship with the United States — a bid to dampen speculation about souring U.S.-Iraqi ties less than two weeks before U.S. midterm elections.
President George W. Bush had conducted a number of meetings with top security and military officials over the past two weeks as the administration sought ways to "adjust" its policy in Iraq. Raging violence and the mounting U.S. death toll was driving voters increasingly into the Democrat camp with the approach of the Nov. 7 midterm vote.
The centerpiece of the new administration strategy — the establishment of a timeline to curb violence and solve other Iraqi problems — was announced by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on Tuesday. He said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite Muslim-dominated government had agreed to the plan.
But on the next two days, al-Maliki publicly and heatedly declared that he saw imposition of timelines as an infringement on Iraqi sovereignty.
"I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it."
Then he declared the timeline program was a product of U.S. electoral politics.
"I am sure that this is not the official policy of the U.S. government, but it is a results of the election race going on and we are not much concerned with it."
The joint statement was issued in English and on a U.S. embassy letterhead after Khalilzad and al-Maliki held an unannounced meeting Friday.
It said the "Iraqi government has made clear the issues that must be resolved with timelines."
Clearly concerned the public split could further damage Republican chances in the polls, the White House on Thursday claimed al-Maliki's comments were taken out of context. But hours later the Iraqi leader reissued the same complaint, unambiguously in an interview with British journalists.
The U.S.-Iraqi relationship already had come under considerable strain as Washington stepped up pressure on al-Maliki to move against Shiite militias and death squads that are believed to be conducting a wave of sectarian killings that has moved the nation toward civil war.
Al-Maliki has repeatedly said he would disband "illegal armed groups" but so far has taken little action.
Language in the joint statement suggested a clear attempt to dampen further speculation about a growing rift in U.S.-Iraqi ties.
"The government of Iraq is committed to a good and strong relationship with the U.S. government to work together toward a democratic, stable Iraq, and to confront the terrorist challenges in light of the strategic alliance between the two countries," it said.
There also was heavy speculation in Baghdad that the United States was preparing to dump al-Maliki, who was the compromise candidate for prime minister from among the dominant Shiite Muslims in parliament. His government has been in power five months.
In an apparent bid to squelch the speculation, the statement said, "The United States will continue to stand by the Iraqi government."
Given U.S. goals of leaving behind a democratic government in Iraq, direct American intervention against al-Maliki would have created an outcry. But had Washington decided to withdraw political support and pull U.S. forces back into their bases, the streets of the capital would likely have erupted into all-out civil war and created a political crisis that would have forced a government change.