Bush, Maliki Withdrawal Timetable Close: New Signs

Reports are mounting that a "memorandum of understanding" between the United States and the Iraqi government for a military withdrawal by 2010 or 2011 is almost complete. But though details of the continuing U.S. military presence in Iraq -- and a possible withdrawal -- are coming into focus, the reaction in both Washington and Baghdad is decidedly less predictable.

Whether the deal will even be submitted to Congress or Iraq's Parliament is unknown. And crucially, the timeline could have a major impact on the presidential race between John McCain and Barack Obama. With legislators in both Baghdad and Washington taking an August recess, an extended debate over the Bush-Maliki agreement could lead right up to the election.

As the AP reported Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the United States are "near" a deal that would see all "combat troops" departing Iraq by fall 2010, with remaining soldiers taking another three years to fully withdraw.

That tracks with earlier reports from the Arabic press this week. In the August 3 edition of As Sabah -- part of the Iraqi Media Network -- the paper reported that Baghdad and Washington have set a deadline, though one potentially "subject to change according to the circumstances," for a U.S. withdrawal in either 2010 or 2011. In addition, the paper said agreement was close on whether American forces should be required to alert the government before making significant arrests.

Whether the "memorandum of understanding" will be presented to Iraq's Parliament is less clear. Asharq al Awsat has quoted a leading member of the Shiite-led United Iraqi Alliance as saying "the treaty will be first presented to the Iraqi political council for national security, and if the council approves it then it will be presented to the Iraqi parliament, which will have the final word."

But Bahrain's Akhbar al-Khaleej is hearing different, reporting this week that:

[The Bush administration] is primarily concerned with its presidential election campaign, [and] was forced to agree to sign a 'memorandum of understanding,' and not a treaty, as it used to demand. The memorandum gives field jurisdiction to US forces, in order to maintain their presence, and to carry out operations against "terrorism" in Iraq, in addition to receiving immunity.

It is obvious that resorting to this MOU came after the Bush administration became convinced that a US-Iraqi strategic treaty, or agreement, would face difficulty in being approved by the Democrat-controlled senate. ... On the Iraqi side, this MOU will not be proposed to the Iraqi parliament, or the Iraqi political powers; it will be approved by the National Security Political Council, which includes representatives of the major political blocs.

The domestic politics of a timeline agreement could undoubtedly prove problematic for Sen. John McCain, who as recently as Thursday was accusing Barack Obama of wanting to "forfeit" victory in Iraq by pushing for an unconditional withdrawal that's similar to the one reportedly being negotiated by President Bush right now.

Still, regardless of how the language of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement shakes out in a final draft, legislators in both countries are likely to want a close look, and some measure of oversight.

Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Bill Delahunt, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Oversight Subcommittee wants to see the final memorandum submitted to Congress, one way or another. And he tells the Huffington Post that Iraqi parliamentarians -- with whom he has established regular contact -- will expect the same courtesy. "Whatever agreement there is, it will have to be submitted to the Iraqi Parliament," he said, adding that the government may need to pass a law on treaty approval before it can take up the U.S.-brokered agreement.

But despite admitting that an agreement is undoubtedly getting near, Delahunt said: "The truth is that there are a lot of uncertainties still surrounding this agreement. The [Bush] administration will obviously say, no matter what is in the agreement, they will maintain it is unnecessary to submit it to Congress. ... It's clear that when they begin this process, they had the intention of working a certain way to circumvent Congress. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari acknowledged as much to me."

Still, Delahunt said, in light of the fact that the administration's first trial balloon for a new security agreement included references to "an enduring relationship with a democratic Iraq" and provided the U.S. with authorization to "take all necessary measures to preserve peace and security" in the country, the end result is expected to be far less sweeping.

"It's clear to me that it's nowhere near to what they [in the administration] initially were looking for."