Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Tuesday there was no need to set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from his country.
"We see no need for a withdrawal timetable. We are working as fast as we can," al-Maliki told reporters while on a four-day trip to Japan. "To demand the departure of the troops is a democratic right and a right we respect. What governs the departure at the end of the day is how confident we are in the handover process."
What counts, he added, are "achievements on the ground."
Al-Maliki’s visit comes two weeks after Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashimi was in Tokyo and said U.S.-led coalition forces should not be withdrawn until Iraq’s army is fully trained and ready to take over security.
U.S. President George W. Bush and Congress have been wrestling over legislation that would set timelines for troop withdrawals from Iraq.
Bush asked for more than $100 billion to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan this year. Congress has approved the money, but the Senate added a provision calling for most U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraq by March 31, 2008. The House version demands a September 2008 withdrawal. Bush has said he would veto any legislation that includes such deadlines.
Al-Maliki leaves Japan Thursday with further assurances of Tokyo’s support for Iraqi reconstruction.
On Monday, Japan and Iraq signed off on $862 million in loans from Tokyo for four projects to repair Iraqi oil processing and export facilities, rebuilding a fertilizer plant and power sector reconstruction. They added on two more loans worth $485 million for water and electricity projects on Tuesday.
Japan agreed to provide the loans for the projects between October and December of last year.
Al-Maliki also met with Emperor Akihito and thanked Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma for Japan’s efforts in support of Iraq, and urged Japanese companies to come back to do business there.
Tokyo backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and provided troops for a non-combat, humanitarian mission in the southern city of Samawah. It withdrew its ground forces in July 2006 but has since expanded Kuwait-based air force operations. Late last month, Japan’s Cabinet approved a two-year extension of the country’s air mission in Iraq after it expires in July.
Al-Maliki’s arrival was delayed several hours by Iran’s refusal to let him use its airspace.
Members of the delegation traveling with al-Maliki said the Iranians informed his pilot that the plane could not enter their airspace because they had not been notified in advance.
The plane was diverted to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where al-Maliki stayed in the airport for more than three hours while his craft was refueled and a new flight plan was filed.