Iraq pushes for deadline on US troop withdrawal

"We need to agree on the principle of setting a deadline," says Iraqi government spokesman. While the US wants to stick to a conditions-based withdrawal, Iraq moves towards setting a date. An Iranian missile test sends message to Israel. The missiles were intended to demonstrate Iranian resolve "against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with a harsh language". A US-Czech missile shield agreement antagonises Russia and President Medvedev warns he would consider retaliatory "counter-measures". In maintaining Gaza truce, "Hamas' public effort to fully keep its commitment is evident".

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An editorial in The Wall Street Journal said that a year ago, the conventional wisdom in Washington was that Iraq was a failed state. "Today, the same wisdom holds that it is less chaotic but still fragile, dependent entirely on a US presence to survive. But judging by recent comments from Nouri al Maliki, even this view may be out of date. "Addressing Arab ambassadors in Abu Dhabi on Monday, the Iraqi prime minister made headlines by saying his government was 'looking at the necessity of terminating the foreign presence on Iraqi lands and restoring full sovereignty.' Mr Maliki has also been playing hardball with the Bush Administration in concluding a status-of-forces agreement by the end of the year, when the current UN mandate authorizing the US presence in Iraq expires. "Mr Maliki's comments are an assertion of confidence in his country's stability ñ and not without cause." Underlining the push for Iraq to reassert its sovereignty, on Tuesday, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani rejected the security deal between Iraq and the United States on the grounds it violates Iraqi sovereignty. UPI said: "Sistani met in Najaf with Iraqi national security adviser Muwafaq al-Rubaie to receive updates on the progress of the status of forces agreement set to replace the UN mandate for Iraq, which expires this year. "The revered cleric said Iraq should not accept a security arrangement that justifies the illegal occupation of the US military, Alalam news said." The New York Times reported that Mr Rubaie: "said the government would reject any security agreement that did not include a schedule for the departure of foreign troops. "'We will not accept a memorandum of understanding without having timeline horizons for the cessation of combat operations as well as the departure of all the combat brigades,' Mr Rubaie said in a telephone interview. However, he declined to offer specifics on a timeline, suggesting that the Iraqi government itself was not yet sure how quickly it wanted the United States to withdraw." Likewise, CNN reported: "A deadline should be set for the withdrawal of US and allied forces from Iraq, and the pullout could be done by 2011, an Iraqi government spokesman said Tuesday. "Ali al Dabbagh said any timetable would depend on 'conditions and the circumstances that the country would be undergoing.' But he said a pullout within 'three, four or five' years was possible. "'It can be 2011 or 2012,' Dabbagh said. 'We don't have a specific date in mind, but we need to agree on the principle of setting a deadline'." Meanwhile, The Washington Post noted: "Sen John McCain, who has repeatedly derided anyone who advocated a timetable for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, now suddenly finds himself in a political box as the American-backed Iraqi leadership yesterday raised the prospect of exactly that. "For the first time on Monday, Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki said in a statement from his office that the two countries should consider deciding the future of American troops with 'a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal.' "McCain was silent on the comments Monday. But today, his top foreign policy adviser declined to criticize Maliki or distance McCain from him. And they sought to portray Maliki's comments as consistent with the Republican nominee's long-standing position."

"Iranian Revolutionary Guards practicing war-game manoeuvres test-fired nine missiles on Wednesday, including at least one the government in Tehran describes as having the range to reach Israel," The New York Times reported. "The tests drew sharp American criticism and came a day after the Iranians had threatened to retaliate against Israel and the United States if attacked. "State-run media said the missiles were long- and medium-range weapons, and included the Shahab-3, which Tehran maintains is able to hit targets up to 1,250 miles away from its firing position. Parts of western Iran are within 650 miles of Tel Aviv." In The Guardian, Julian Borger wrote: "Just in case there was any ambiguity about Iran's missile test today in the Hormuz Straits, the air force chief, General Hossein Salami, put any lingering uncertainty to rest. "Salami said the tests of long- and medium- range missiles were intended to demonstrate Iranian resolve 'against enemies who in recent weeks have threatened Iran with a harsh language'. "There is no question that the principal enemy the Iranian government has in mind is Israel. Israel is within range of the Shahab 3 missile, one of the weapons tested today. And Israel is the only country currently employing 'harsh language' about Iran. "George Bush repeatedly says 'all options are on the table' but that diplomacy is his administration's favoured approach. Israeli officials, by contrast, have said explicitly they would carry out air strikes to prevent Iran building nuclear weapons." In spite of the recent dramatic exchange of threats, Bronwen Maddox wrote in The Times: "There are reasons to see this symmetrical eruption of threats as mainly posturing, on either side. It is hard to find even hawks in Washington who are keen on airstrikes, given the difficulty of the mission, the uncontrollable effects on the region and the opposition from the American public, Congress, much of the US military and allies of the US. Nor is an Israeli strike possible without US backing, given that it would have to send aircraft or missiles over Iraq. Some Western officials agree wryly with yesterday's remark by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, that for Bush, a strike would be 'political suicide'. There have even been signs from the US of a very different tack. Officials considered sending consular staff to the US section within the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, according to Mark Fitzpatrick of the IISS think-tank in London, to help Iranians to get visas and take advantage of pro-American feeling in Iran. But a senior adviser to Ahmadinejad blocked it, Fitzpatrick said." The Associated Press said: "The two main presidential candidates agreed Wednesday that Iran's missile tests call for renewed pressure on that country, but Democrat Barack Obama stressed direct diplomacy while Republican John McCain focused on tougher sanctions against Tehran. "Obama called for a continued package of carrot-and-stick incentives to dissuade the Iranians from pursuing nuclear weapons while putting more emphasis on diplomatic talks. "'At this point, the report is unclear, it's still early,' Obama said on 'The Early Show' on CBS. 'What this underscores is the need for ... a clear policy that is putting the burden on Iran to change behaviour. And frankly, we just have not been able to do that the last several years, partly because we're not engaged in direct diplomacy'."

"The United States and the Czech Republic signed an initial agreement Tuesday allowing the US military to build a radar station southwest of Prague as part of an antiballistic missile defence system in Eastern Europe," The Washington Post reported. "'It is an agreement for friends and allies who face a common threat in the 21st century and wish to address it through the application of the best defensive technologies that we can bring to bear,' Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after signing the agreement at a ceremony in the Czech capital. "The United States and its allies say the system will protect against attack by Iran and other enemies, but the plan has drawn intense criticism from opponents in the Czech Republic and from Russia, which calls the missile shield unnecessary, destabilizing and a threat to its security." The Times said: "The Russian President Dmitri Medvedev warned the United States today that he would consider retaliatory 'counter-measures' if Washington went ahead with the construction of a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe... "The Russian Foreign Ministry had already reacted angrily to the missile deal signed yesterday by Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, on a visit to the Czech Republic, threatening to retaliate by 'military-technical means'. The Czech Republic has agreed to host the radar system needed for the shield. "Mr Medvedev said today that the deal 'offends us greatly', adding: 'Russia isn't going to get hysterical but will be studying counter-measures'."

"An Israel-Hamas truce has boiled down to a simple trade-off: For a day of calm, Israel adds five truckloads of cows and 200 tons of cement to the barest basics it ships to Gaza, but rocket fire from the territory reseals the border for a day," Associated Press reported. "Since the cease-fire deal was reached nearly three weeks ago, the trickle of extra goods has barely made a difference in the daily lives of 1.4 million Gazans, who have been cut off from the world since the violent Hamas takeover a year ago. Gazans are struggling with frequent blackouts, soaring food prices and fuel rationing of five gallons per driver a week. "The truce remains shaky and the two sides seem unable to move forward. Still, weary residents cling to the hope that this deal will stick where many others failed." An editorial in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, said: "Hamas' public effort to fully keep its commitment is evident. The Hamas mufti has called anyone who fires a Qassam a 'criminal,' and its leadership is declaring that the Qassams damage Palestinian interests. While other organizations have not condemned the firing, they have stressed they are sticking to the deal. "There is no doubt that Hamas, like the other organisations, and like Israel, has a great interest in maintaining the current cease-fire. At the same time, there is no doubt that organisations, gangs and even Fatah elements are interested in torpedoing the agreement or are claiming the right to veto decisions by Hamas. "Ostensibly Israel could turn its back on the internal Palestinian disputes and say it is none of its business to examine who is breaking or observing the cease-fire. As far as Israel is concerned, Hamas and the other organisations are responsible for the agreement and any violation of it constitutes its revocation. However, the reality in Gaza was not invisible to Israel when it adopted the agreement. Israel knew it would take some time before Israeli airspace would be hermetically sealed to the Qassams."