BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki last month sold the Iraqi people on a security pact with the U.S. that he called a "withdrawal agreement" to end the presence of American forces in his country by the beginning of 2012.
His top government spokesman, Ali al Dabbagh, undercut that claim this week, however, when he said in Washington that the U.S. might be needed in Iraq for another 10 years, a statement that reverberated with political leaders in Baghdad, renewing criticism of the deal.
"We expected something odd," said Alaa Maki, a member of a Sunni Muslim political bloc that's forced Maliki to put the security agreement before voters as a referendum next year. "That is the reason we pushed for the referendum."
The security agreement, which takes effect Jan. 1, doesn't allow U.S. personnel to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31, 2011. Iraq and the U.S. could negotiate another agreement to keep Americans in the country after that date, however.
In a quietion and answer session with reporters at the Pentagon, Dabbagh said that Americans would be needed to continue training Iraqi security forces and that the government would open negotiations for allowing to do in 2011.
"We do understand that the Iraqi military is not going to get built out in the three years. We do need many more years. It might be 10 years," he said.
That assertion makes sense to many Iraqi leaders, though they rarely say it in public. Iraq doesn't have a navy or an air force to protect itself. Many view it as America's obligation to improve the country's defense.
"It is the responsibility of the United States that we should not be left to be attacked," Maki said.
However, Dabbagh's statement reopened the primary attack on the security agreement, that it would justify the U.S. presence in Iraq and lead to an extended occupation.
"This statement comes to appease the Americans," charged Sheikh Ali Hatem, a tribal leader from Anbar province, west of Baghdad. "It is true the Americans have a moral obligation to straighten out Bush's mess, but 10 years of American troops is too much.
"We already have an agreement, and if the government thought that the three years mentioned in it were not adequate, why didn't it fix 10 years instead? Was it simply to get the agreement approved and then to go ahead with other plans?"
Some viewed Dabbagh's statement as inopportune at best, even if it could be justified as a realistic assessment of Iraq's defense needs.
"We haven't even begun implementing the agreement," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of parliament who voted for the pact. "We just approved it. For us to think about extending the U.S. presence by planning another (security agreement) is premature."
Sadik al Rikabi, one of the prime minister's top advisers, declined to comment on Dabbagh's statement, saying that he hadn't read it in full.
The agreement's fiercest opponents seized on Dabbagh's statements to press their assertions that Maliki was insincere when he negotiated the deal.
"The agreement is not a withdrawal agreement," said Ahmed al Massoudi, a member of parliament from a party tied to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr. "It is a mandate, because the American troops won't withdraw from Iraq within the next three years, and all of that is misleading."
(Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee. McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY