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Shi'ite Leader Sees 2011 U.S. Pullout From Iraq, Under Obama Or McCain

Ammar al-Hakim at the Forum 2000 conference in Prague

Ammar al-Hakim at the Forum 2000 conference in Prague

PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- U.S. presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain have offered distinctly different visions for the future of U.S. troops in Iraq. But their plans might not matter because the U.S. future in Iraq is being decided now, according to a key Iraqi political leader.

Both Obama and McCain's Iraq proposals contrast with a draft agreement recently reached by the Iraqi and U.S. governments. It calls for most U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

Obama, the Democratic candidate, wants most U.S. troops out within 16 months -- a withdrawal pace twice as fast as that envisioned by the draft agreement. By contrast, McCain, the Republican candidate, sees U.S. troops staying in Iraq at least until 2013 -- about a year longer than the draft agreement calls for.

But in an interview with RFE/RL, Ammar al-Hakim, a key Shi'ite leader and acting head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) political party, suggests that the governments of both Iraq and the United States will respect the withdrawal goal of their draft accord -- regardless of who becomes the next U.S. president.

"The Iraqi government has always worked on efforts to prepare the Iraqi security forces to handle its security affairs. And we have talked about a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces at the end of 2011," al-Hakim says. "This is why we are not worried about any choices made by the American people."

Succeed His Father

Al-Hakim, 37, is leading the ISCI in the absence of his father, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the party's traditional head who is undergoing treatment for cancer. He is widely expected to eventually succeed his father.

Obama, who is leading in most opinion polls, argues that a faster timetable for withdrawal will spur Iraqi parties to make faster political and security progress. Recently, Iraq's parliament took a key political step by calling for provincial elections by the end of January. The hope is that Sunnis and Shi'a who feel shut out of politics will take part in the vote and bolster the authority of the government.

In the last five years there has been interference in Iraq by the countries in the region. We have always expressed our determination that there should be no interference in the affairs of Iraq.
Shi'a, the majority in Iraq, are expected to fare well, and al-Hakim has recently sought to boost ISCI's appeal -- even in Sunni areas. On October 4, al-Hakim, whose party enjoys close ties with Iran -- a fellow majority Shi'ite country -- toured the mainly Sunni cities of Samarra and Tikrit, north of Baghdad, in a bid to woo supporters.

He says Arab Sunnis -- who ruled under former dictator Saddam Hussein -- should be given a stake in Iraq's future. But he didn't say whether that means his party supports integrating into the main security forces tens of thousands of Sunni anti-Al-Qaeda fighters who have helped stabilize Iraqi security in recent months.

"We have adopted the slogan of 'Friendship With All.' We have strong relations with the Kurds, with the Sunnis, and with other groups in Iraq," al-Hakim says. "The [Shi'ite] tribes and the tribal leaders, they always have very strong and special relations with [our party]. The response and the census we are doing show that people are very positive to [our party]."

Still, al-Hakim is locked in a bitter and often violent power struggle with the forces of fellow Shi'ite Muqtada al-Sadr. That struggle represents a generations-old power tussle between the families of the two men in southern Iraq.

'No Interference'

While al-Hakim reputedly has close ties to Shi'ite Iran, analysts say Tehran's policies in Iraq are more complex than commonly portrayed in the media. According to U.S. military reports, militia groups backed by Iran have also taken part in the inter-Shi'ite struggle for power in Iraq, including assassinating ISCI members.

Al-Hakim, who spoke on the sidelines of the annual Forum 2000 conference in Prague, did not deny those reports but declined to cite Iran by name.

"In the last five years there has been interference in Iraq by the countries in the region. We have always expressed our determination that there should be no interference in the affairs of Iraq," al-Hakim says. "And Iraq should not interfere in their affairs and they should not interfere in our affairs. We are following up this issue with all of the countries involved in this matter through behind-closed-doors talks."

Some have accused al-Hakim of seeking power for its own sake and portrayed his party as corrupt and purely profit-driven. Asked what constitutes the ISCI's philosophy and social program, he cited pragmatic goals such as providing better services for the people, stabilizing the country, and improving regional relations.