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Iraqis divided by U.S. troop timetable call

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqis want the U.S. military presence to end. But when that occurs -- and whether a timetable should be set for troops to leave -- is something ordinary Iraqis, security officials and politicians cannot agree on.

U.S. soldiers stand guard near a soft drinks vendor outside a clinic during medical aids distribution by the U.S. forces to residents in Mahmudiya, about 30 km (20 miles) south of Baghdad, July 15, 2008 . REUTERS/Ibrahim Sultan

The differing views of two dozen people interviewed across the country reflect the dramatic changes in the past few months in Iraq, where violence is at a four-year low.

Iraqi security forces, with U.S. military backing, have cracked down on Shi’ite and Sunni Arab militants in several large-scale operations across the country.

That has given many Iraqis more faith in their own forces. Others insist the army and police cannot go it alone and that a premature withdrawal of U.S. troops could open the door to the sort of violence that nearly tore Iraq apart not so long ago.

It’s a dilemma Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama will confront when he visits Iraq soon. He has called for the removal of U.S. combat troops within 16 months of taking office.

“Setting a timetable or conducting a quick withdrawal would be like committing suicide. I do not think the Iraqi army and police will be able to keep the peace,” said Muneer Abbas, a local politician in the southern oil city of Basra.

Ashraf Fawzi, a secondary student in northern Kirkuk, disagreed: “American forces must leave at once, without any timetable. They brought us sectarianism, which we had never heard of before. The Iraqi security forces can protect us.”

Last week, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki suggested setting a timetable for U.S. forces to leave as part of a deal being negotiated with Washington to govern the presence of U.S. troops when a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.

No dates have been mentioned and Iraqi officials now also use the more general term of “time horizon” for any departure.

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While the Bush administration has rejected hard timetables, a U.S. official involved in the negotiations told Reuters this week the security deal would incorporate “goals” for the U.S. transition and that these “might include dates”.

BUZZWORD IS SOVEREIGNTY

The last of five extra U.S. combat brigades sent to Iraq in 2007 will finish withdrawing next week. That will bring to an end the so-called “surge”, which U.S. President George W. Bush ordered last year to halt Iraq’s slide into sectarian civil war.

But Iraqis are acutely aware that more than five years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, there are still more than 140,000 American soldiers in their country.

And the buzzword word now is “sovereignty”.

“There must be a time limit for these forces because their presence is an embarrassment,” Ali al-Adeeb, a senior Shi’ite lawmaker close to Maliki, told Reuters.

Even some Iraqis who demand a timetable say Iraq’s forces still need strengthening.

“This is occupation,” said Abdul-Kareem al-Khalifa, a university professor in Kirkuk.

“But I want a timetable to be associated with the building of our security forces, which so far are not qualified.”

Iraq’s security forces have grown rapidly, totalling around 560,000, including army, police and other units. But many units can only function with U.S. military assistance.

The army has carried out major operations against Shi’ite militants in Basra, Baghdad and the southern city of Amara.

While ultimately successful, the offensive in Basra in late March got off to a bad start when gunmen loyal to Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr resisted. Around 1,000 soldiers deserted.

An offensive is under way against Sunni Arab al Qaeda militants in the northern city of Mosul.

Ibrahim Khalil, 35 a shop owner, said Iraqi forces had shown their mettle in Mosul, Basra, Baghdad and Amara.

“Once again, Iraqis can travel to different provinces. We want the government to tell us when U.S. troops will leave.”

Karim Ali, an army major in Najaf, said he rejected a timetable partly because of what might happen if reconciliation hit a dead-end and rival factions turned on each other again.

“Then it would be survival of the fittest in the absence of the Americans,” Ali said.

Additional reporting by reporters in Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra, Tikrit, Ramadi and Najaf, Editing by Dominic Evans

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