The U.S. Congress is bitterly debating the status of American forces in Iraq, but Iraqi leaders made their feelings clear on Monday: They want a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In a meeting held in Cairo, Egypt, leaders of Iraq's main ethnic groups said a schedule needs to be set for the rebuilding of the country's own armed forces and agreed that those who oppose the war have a "legitimate right" to resist.
The letter, signed by representatives of the Shiite and Kurdish majority and Sunni minority, condemned terrorism, but supported the Sunni position that insurgents should not be labeled as terrorists if their operations do not target innocent civilians or institutions designed to provide for the welfare of Iraqi citizens, according to an Associated Press report.
It did not, however, include any reference to attacks against U.S. or Iraqi forces, an omission Iraqi delegates said was intentional. "Though resistance is a legitimate right for all people, terrorism does not represent resistance," the document said. "Therefore, we condemn terrorism and acts of violence, killing and kidnapping targeting Iraqi citizens and humanitarian, civil, government institutions, national resources and houses of worship."
The leaders also called for the withdrawal of foreign troops "according to a timetable, through putting in place an immediate national program to rebuild the armed forces ... control the borders and the security situation" and end terror attacks. The conference was organized by the Arab League and was attended by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Shiite and Kurdish lawmakers and leading Sunni politicians.
Sunni leaders have put pressure on the Shiite-majority government to draw up a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops, but the statement did not set a specific date for the changeover. According to the AP, Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr suggested that U.S.-led forces should be able to leave Iraq by the end of next year. "By the middle of next year we will be 75 percent done in building our forces, and by the end of next year it will be fully ready," Jabr told al Jazeera TV.
The delegates also called for the release of all "innocent detainees" who have not been convicted by courts and an investigation into allegations of torture against prisoners. Though the letter did not set any guidelines about how these provisions would be implemented, it forcefully demanded the "immediate end to arbitrary raids and arrests without a documented judicial order."
The meeting was part of a U.S.-backed attempt to bring the divided Iraqi factions closer together and clear the path for Sunni participation in the December 15 national elections. However, the meeting was not without problems: According to the AP, Shiite and Kurdish delegates stormed out of a closed session at one point when a speaker accused them of selling out to the Americans.
The push by the Iraqi leaders came amid continuing turmoil in the U.S. over the duration of its military commitment to Iraq (see "GOP Senate Blocks Timetable On Iraq, But Passes Plan Requesting Progress Reports"). Last week, Vietnam war veteran and Democratic Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq within six months. Republicans rejected Murtha's contention and forced a largely symbolic vote on a House measure to immediately withdraw troops from Iraq; the vote's failure was a foregone conclusion and Democrats called it a political stunt intended to embarrass them.
After initially dismissing Murtha's statements, both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have said in recent days that they respectfully disagree with Murtha's opinion.