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Boost for Obama over Iraq withdrawal

Barack Obama has paid his first visit to Iraq, just as the Iraqi government explicitly matched the Democratic presidential candidate's 16-month timetable for the removal of American combat troops.

Senator Obama met Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in Baghdad yesterday during his visit, which had become overshadowed by a row over the proposed pullout. Mr Obama did not raise his plan for withdrawal of US forces, the government said. But Mr Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said his government was "hoping that in 2010 combat troops will withdraw from Iraq". This time frame is similar to Mr Obama's.

The White House was clearly dismayed and embarrassed by an interview given by Mr Maliki to the German news magazine Der Spiegel in which he appeared to express agreement with Mr Obama's withdrawal plans. Mr Dabbagh later said in a statement distributed by the American military that Mr Maliki's words had been "misunderstood and mistranslated".

Der Spiegel stood by its version of what Mr Maliki said and said the translator for the interview was provided by Mr Maliki's own office and not by the magazine. In reality, Mr Maliki did say Mr Obama's 16-month plan "could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq".

Differences over American strategy in Iraq and the number of troops to be kept there is at the centre of the American presidential campaign. The Republican candidate, Senator John McCain, has argued that US forces should stay in Iraq until it has won a victory, although it is not clear what this victory would entail. He successfully relaunched his campaign to become the Republican nominee last year by claiming that the US was succeeding militarily. But it will be difficult for Mr McCain to denounce Mr Obama's plan as it is very similar to what the Iraqi government is demanding. Mr McCain said: "I'm glad that Senator Obama is going to get a chance for the first time to sit down with General David Petraeus and understand what the surge was all about and why it succeeded and why we are winning the war. I hope he will have a chance to admit that he badly misjudged the situation and he was wrong."

The weakness of Mr McCain's policy is that the fall in violence is attributable not only to the surge – the sending of US reinforcements – but to the Mehdi Army militia's truce ordered by its leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, and to Iranian support for Mr Maliki. This makes the political situation in Iraq very unstable.

Mr Obama is visiting Iraq as part of a congressional delegation, but was not planning to give press conferences while there. Mr Dabbagh said: "Obama did not speak about anything which concerns the Iraqi government because he does not have any official [government] capacity."

The US is under pressure to send troops withdrawn from Iraq to combat the mounting Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.