The Iraq war threatens to consume the president-elect within days of Tuesday's election, well before the winner of the hard-fought contest for the White House takes office Jan. 20.
The Iraqi government has requested changes to a critical draft security pact with the United States, but says it doesn't expect Washington to answer until after Election Day. The unrevised pact, which is required for American troops to continue operating in Iraq after Dec. 31, faces stiff opposition in Baghdad.
And there are growing indications that Baghdad will hold off on acceding to any deal until after inauguration day, especially if Democrat Barack Obama wins. The Illinois senator has called the war a blunder from the outset and is determined, he says, to pull troops out of the country within 16 months of taking office.
If Iraq refuses a deal by year's end, the roughly 150,000 American forces in Iraq would have no legal mandate to be in the country, and the Bush administration has warned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that it would immediately pull troops back to U.S. bases.
A threat to Iraq security
That, in turn, would leave Iraq's improving but still wobbly, undermanned and questionably equipped security forces standing alone against al-Qaida fighters and Shiite militants who, while diminished in numbers, remain determined to re-ignite the turmoil and violence that gripped the nation until the last months of 2007.
Iraqi lawmakers and al-Maliki's Cabinet are pressing for changes in the draft agreement before submitting it to parliament for approval. In particular, al-Maliki wants more jurisdiction over U.S. troops and guarantees that Iraqi territory will not be used by the U.S. to launch attacks on neighboring countries, like last weekend's U.S. raid into Syria. Baghdad also wants to remove language that could allow the U.S. to stay beyond the end of 2011.
The pending draft deal currently calls for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities by the end of June and withdraw from the country by the end of 2011, unless the government asks them to stay after all.
The agreement, which would not have the force of a treaty and would not require ratification by the U.S. Senate, is designed to replace the U.N. resolution under which American forces invaded Iraq and are allowed to be in the country. The new pact became necessary after Iraq said it would no longer seek annual renewal of the U.N. mandate.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain insists that a U.S. troop withdrawal under the so-called Status of Forces Agreement, as written, is based on security conditions in Iraq. But when asked directly if he would honor the agreement, McCain has responded, "I've always said we could be out based on conditions, and honor and victory, and not defeat."
Plenty of wiggle room
What precisely the conditions would be are not clear, and there's plenty of wiggle room in such a response.
For Obama, the agreement, as it now stands, comes closer to what he has been proposing all along. His campaign promise to set a 16-month deadline for pulling out U.S. troops would expire in May 2010. But that's still more than a year and a half before what's called for in the pending U.S.-Iraqi agreement.
U.S. presence to train Iraqi forces
Obama also wants to leave in place a U.S. presence of unspecified size that would continue training Iraqi forces, protecting U.S. interests and standing by as a rapid-response force in case of a significant resurgence of violence. That position leaves him room to maneuver as well.
If President Bush leaves office with American forces confined to barracks, as would be the case if the agreement is not reached by year's end, the Iraq problem immediately jumps to the top of the list of the next president's massive to-do list.
But the next president will not be able to publicly act on Iraq until Jan. 20, leaving him in a desperately delicate diplomatic and military bind.
The Obama campaign said it was not discussing the draft agreement. The McCain organization did not immediately responded to requests to discuss how it would deal with Iraq if there was no agreement by Dec. 31.
Pact would not have treaty status
Since the pact would not have treaty status, it would probably be reopened for negotiation no matter which candidate wins the election.
While Obama would probably feel more comfortable with the agreement, given it has a firm end-date for U.S. involvement, he would be hard-pressed to break his campaign vow by leaving American forces in the country for 18 months longer than promised. McCain, too, would probably seek alterations because he has staunchly opposed setting a date for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
If the Iraqis refuse any deal at all, either president-elect would face a huge potential crisis: the vast logistical nightmare of removing tens of thousands of American forces and vast stores of materiel from a country that still bristles with fighters who would be willing to attack departing forces.
Also, al-Qaida forces on one side and Iranian-backed Shiite militants on the other stand a good chance of undoing the growing sense of normalcy in a critical Middle Eastern country with the world's third largest oil reserves.
After more than five years of war, at least $800 billion and a U.S. death toll approaching 5,000, would either presidential candidate simply walk away from Iraq? It does not seem likely in the short term.