WITHDRAWAL….Does the Iraqi government want us to set a timeline for withdrawal?

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki raised the prospect on Monday of setting a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops as part of negotiations over a new security agreement with Washington.

…. In a statement, Maliki’s office said the prime minister made the comments about the security pact — which will replace a U.N. mandate for the presence of U.S. troops that expires on December 31 — to Arab ambassadors in the United Arab Emirates.

“In all cases, the basis for any agreement will be respect for the full sovereignty of Iraq,” the statement quoted Maliki as saying. “The current trend is to reach an agreement on a memorandum of understanding either for the departure of the forces or a memorandum of understanding to put a timetable on their withdrawal.”

Atrios says pithily that this just ain’t gonna happen, and I’m inclined to agree. Which is odd, in a way, since both sides in the SOFA negotiations might benefit from it.

On the Iraqi side, Maliki is plainly under pressure from the Sadrites and others to make it clear that American troops won’t be hanging around forever. Public sentiment on this point is fairly strong, if a bit fuzzy, and Maliki would be politically well served by an agreement that sets some kind of credible timeline for withdrawal. This is especially true since Maliki seems to be increasingly convinced that the Iraqi army is pretty hot stuff and maybe doesn’t need much American support going forward anyway.

On the U.S. side, there’s Barack Obama waiting in the wings. He says he’s going to start drawing down troops immediately and finish the withdrawal within 16 months, and even the famously out-to-lunch George Bush must be at least considering the strong possibility that Obama is going to win in November and then do what he says he’s going to do. So what’s the best strategy for both sides here?

Answer: a “timeline” for withdrawal, but one that’s slower and more flexible than the one they think Obama will impose. Say 36 months, with conditions and caveats. Then, when January rolls around and Obama takes office, he has to decide: is it worth a political donnybrook not to impose a withdrawal plan where none currently exists, but merely to speed up a withdrawal plan that’s already in place?

Maybe not. Both Bush and Maliki, therefore, might be shrewd to negotiate a withdrawal plan of their own: Maliki for electoral reasons and Bush in order to get the best deal he probably can under the circumstances. I wouldn’t say this is a likely scenario or anything, but it’s a possible one. It only works, however, if Obama remains firm on his own withdrawal plan. Otherwise, what’s the point?

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