Yet another Iraqi official is specifying the need for deadlines for U.S. troops to leave their country, casting doubt on John McCain's claim that the Maliki government is not, in fact, interested in a timetable for withdrawal.
On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials were growing confident that Iraqi security forces would be ready to shoulder operational burdens by mid-2009. Buried in the piece was a quote from Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, who declared that a U.S. pullout from Iraq could be by "2011 or 2012."
"We don't have a specific date in mind," he said, "but we need to agree on the principle of setting a deadline."
The remarks come less than a day after McCain insisted Iraqi leaders were not calling for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals. The Senator and his campaign have argued that statements of the like from the Maliki government should be seen as efforts both to curry favor among the Iraqi populace and secure a more favorable status of forces agreement with the United States.
"Actually, the Iraqis are not [calling for a timeable]," said McCain. "The Iraqis were widely reported as short a time ago as a couple of weeks ago that there would be no status of forces agreement, and Maliki would say that, and it got headlines, and of course it turned out not to be true."
Iraq scholars in the United States have also expressed skepticism regarding the sincerity of Maliki's posturing.
"The overall message is good for the U.S. (if not necessarily for either U.S. candidate for president, in a zero sum competitive sense): the Iraqis are starting to feel more confident and capable," said Michael O'Hanlon, a vocal proponent of the war and a fellow at the Brookings Institute. "Also their domestic politics push them a bit towards this kind of talk. But be careful; we aren't hearing too many specifics about drawdowns, which should tell you something."
And yet, al-Dabbagh is now -- at the very least -- the third public official in Iraq to stress the need for timeline. On Monday, Prime Minister Maliki suggested that a withdrawal schedule was a prerequisite for any long-term agreement with the United States. On Tuesday, National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie went even further.
"We can't have a memorandum of understanding with foreign forces unless it has dates and clear horizons determining the departure of foreign forces. We're unambiguously talking about their departure."
And from the perspective of the presidential campaign it is hard not to see how this benefits Barack Obama. As the Illinois Democrat inevitably gets criticized from the GOP for pursuing troop withdrawal timelines, he merely needs to pivot and argue that it is the policy wish of the Iraqis. As Michael Goldfarb, an aide to John McCain, told the Huffington Post on Wednesday, even the Arizona Republican "has always been clear that American forces operate in Iraq only with the consent of that country's democratically elected government."