Confusion over the Iraqi prime minister's seeming endorsement of Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plan is part of Baghdad's strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America's military mission.
The goal is not necessarily to push out the Americans quickly, but instead give Iraqis a major voice in how long U.S. troops stay and what they will do while still there.
It also is designed to refurbish the nationalist credentials of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who owes his political survival to the steadfast support of President Bush. Now, an increasingly confident Iraqi government seems to be undermining long-standing White House policies on Iraq.
The flap began Saturday when Germany's Der Spiegel magazine released an interview quoting al-Maliki as saying U.S. troops should leave Iraq "as soon as possible" and that Obama's proposed 16-month timeline to remove combat troops was "the right timeframe for a withdrawal."
Prime minister's comments controversial
With Obama due to visit Iraq soon, al-Maliki's spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh was quick to discredit the report, saying the prime minister's remarks were "not conveyed accurately." A top al-Maliki adviser, Sadiq al-Rikabi, insisted the Iraqi government does not intend to be "part of the electoral campaign in the United States."
But that is precisely what the Iraqis intended to do: exploit Obama's position on the war to force the Bush administration into accepting concessions considered unthinkable a few months ago.
Already, the Iraqi strategy has succeeded in persuading the White House to agree to a "general time horizon" for removing U.S. troops — long a goal of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
According to senior Iraqi officials, the decision to play U.S. politics emerged last month after Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari's trip to Washington for meetings with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Obama and Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee.
The visit took place as the U.S. and Iraq were negotiating rules that would govern the American military presence in Iraq once the U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
The talks had bogged down over U.S. demands for extensive basing rights, control of Iraqi airspace and immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law for U.S. soldiers and private contractors.
In the past, the Iraqis would have bowed to American pressure. This time, they saw an option in Obama, a longtime critic of the war. They could press for a short-term agreement with the administration and take their chances with a new president — Obama or McCain.
Also, the Iraqis could flirt with Obama's withdrawal timetable, increasing pressure on Bush to cut a deal more favorable to them.
'Let's squeeze them'
With the talks bogged down, the Iraqis sensed desperation by the Americans to wrap up a deal quickly before the presidential campaign was in full swing.
"Let's squeeze them," al-Maliki told his advisers, who related the conversation to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
The squeeze came July 7, when al-Maliki announced in Abu Dhabi that Iraq wanted the base deal to include some kind of timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops. The prime minister also proposed a short-term interim memorandum of agreement rather than the more formal status of forces agreement the two sides had been negotiating.
Talk of a full agreement fell by the wayside in favor of a short-term memorandum.
More significantly, the White House agreed this past week to a "general time horizon" for withdrawing American troops — short of a firm timetable but a dramatic shift from the administration's refusal to accept any deadline for ending the mission in Iraq.
U.S. officials in Baghdad have sought to put a positive spin on all this, explaining it as a sign that Iraqis are acting more like a sovereign government.
Nonetheless, the Iraqi stand comes at a delicate time. Voters in the U.S. are faced with choosing between two presidential candidates with vastly differing views on the U.S. mission in Iraq.
Military commanders are wondering whether all the political bargaining about withdrawal timetables could create its own unstoppable momentum, leaving Iraqi security forces increasingly in charge when they may not be ready for the task.
Consequences of troop withdrawal
When asked Sunday about the possibility of removing U.S. combat troops within two years, the Pentagon's top military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, did not mince words: "I think the consequences could be very dangerous."
Facing down the Americans on such a critical issue would have been unthinkable months ago, when the very survival of the Iraqi government depended on U.S. military support.
Last year, the administration stood against suggestions by its Arab allies to dump al-Maliki in favor of Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite and former prime minister deemed less hostile to the Sunni minority.
But the sharp reduction in violence — now at its lowest level in four years — and the routing of Shiite and Sunni extremists from most of their urban strongholds have bolstered the government's self-confidence.
The decision this weekend by the main Sunni Arab political bloc to end its nearly yearlong boycott of the government has enhanced al-Maliki's stature as leader with support beyond his fellow Shiites.
With oil now at record prices, Iraq is awash in petrodollars, with estimated revenue this year likely to reach $70 billion.
All that has given many Iraqis the feeling they do not really need the Americans — certainly not on terms they find distasteful.
"We want a new president who can deal with the Iraqi people with a new approach and policy that aims to put an end to the occupation," said Juma al-Quraishi, a Baghdad newspaper vendor. "Then he can plan how to build a new Iraq."