In a stunning diplomatic breakthrough for Barack Obama, Iraq's prime minister yesterday endorsed the Democratic candidate's 16-month timeline for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki endorsed the Obama approach in a July 18 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, just as President Bush and Sen. John McCain were touting a vague new commitment to a "horizon" for withdrawal. The New York Times did not report the Maliki statement in its July 19 edition.
Uncertainty about Maliki's surprise statement persists since his top political spokesman told the Times only one week ago that troop withdrawals would take three to five years, if not longer. [NYT, July 11]. The number of American troops he would request as counter-terrrorism units, trainers and advisers could be tens of thousands.
But as Obama's plane touched down in Afghanistan, Maliki's comments were having a far-reaching effect on the war and presidential politics, with the Maliki government withdrawing from George Bush and making McCain appear foolish.
This could be the "Philippine option" predicted in Ending the War in Iraq, in which the US arranged behind the scenes for the Manila government to request the departure of the American fleet.
While the sequencing may be accidental, it appears that the Obama forces could reap a windfall. Obama will seem more successful than Bush in managing the last stages of the war, depriving McCain of the claim to superior foreign policy experience. Obama's imminent arrival in Baghdad could seem like a victory lap in the foreign policy "primary."
Why would Maliki break so sharply with his long-time US partner in the White House? Are the Iraqis more adept at playing American politics than the White House is?
As noted before at this site, Iraqi public opinion -- Shi'a and Sunni -- strongly favors a deadline for American troop withdrawal. The provincial elections to be held later this year [at the insistence of the US] will produce victories for candidates who demand ending the occupation, both in Sunni areas like Anbar and Mahdi Army areas like Sadr City. Maliki's coalition must appear to stand for Iraqi sovereignty and the departure of US forces.
Somewhere in the background is Iran with its strong ties to the entire Shi'a community in Iraq. The Iranian interest is in keeping Shi'a factions unified in a demand that the US troops and bases are folding up and returning home. Iran believes that a retreating US will be less able to strike from positions of strength on the ground if a US-Iran conflict takes place.
Besides Iran and the Shi'a bloc, the big winners in this scenario would be the multinational oil companies now subtly assuring themselves access to Iraq's oilfields after thirty years of absence.
The Bush Administration could mask defeat in claims of "mission accomplished", perhaps with garlands of flowers provided by Maliki at a joint ceremony.
Though genuine peace would a blessing, the real losers stand to be the Sunni minority which is the backbone of the insurgency, and the long-suffering Shi'a poor in Sadr City whose social-economic needs are little recognized by the dominant Shi'a party. In the region's geo-politics, Saudi Arabia would be angered at the rise of greater Shi'a and Iranian power in potentially competitive oil fields. And despite their alarm about Iran's nuclear plans, Israel would welcome an Iraq shorn of its power in the Sunni world.
As for al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, they could claim a victory in helping drive the American forces out of Iraq, but their narrow public support would shrink further if Iraqis recover sovereignty. A loophole in the Obama plan, certainly endorsed by Maliki, would allow American counter-terrorism units to go after alleged al-Qaeda units operating in Iraq as US combat forces draw down.
The huge "if" hovering over this sudden development is simply whether the Bush Administration can force Maliki to back down from his statement, or at least retreat from going further.
Here is Maliki's statement, delivered as Obama's visit to the region was beginning:
Whoever is thinking about the shorter term [for withdrawal] is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems... As soon as possible, as far as we're concerned... Those who operate on the premise of short time periods in Iraq today are being more realistic... Artificially prolonging the tenure of US troops in Iraq would cause problems. U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes.
Tom Hayden is the author of Ending the War in Iraq .