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Obama and Iraq By: Amir Taheri
New York Post | Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Barack Obama's op-ed in yesterday's New York Times begins with a major misundestanding and follows with a dangerous pirouette.

His first paragraph reads: "The call by Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki for a timetable for the removal of American troops from Iraq presents an enormous opportunity. We should seize this moment to begin the phased redeployment of combat troops that I have long advocated, and that is needed for long-term success in Iraq and the security interests of the United States."

Yet Maliki has made no such formal demand. Both Maliki and his security adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, have stated that they wouldn't endorse any agreement that might imply a permanent US military presence in Iraq. But neither they nor the Iraqi government as a whole has presented a demand for US troop withdrawal in the negotiations with the United States.

In fact, sources at the highest level in Baghdad tell me that the Maliki government doesn't want America to reduce its military presence in Iraq significantly before the next Iraqi general election at the end of 2009. This is also the position of Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani, the primus inter pares of the Shiite clergy in Iraq.

Most Iraqis want all foreign troops to leave Iraq eventually - but not before Iraq is capable of defending itself against domestic and foreign enemies.

Obama might have asked Maliki or his entourage for more information about the Iraqi position. Obama's aides might have phoned Sistani's office to check the grand ayatollah's position. Better still, Obama might have waited until after his coming visit to Iraq before penning his op-ed.

Maliki's comments came in response to three political considerations:

1) When the time comes, Maliki doesn't want to appear "more Catholic than the pope." If a President Obama decides to leave in a hurry, no Iraqi leader would want to be seen begging the Americans to stay.

2) Maliki doesn't want to burn all his bridges with Iran: If the Americans run away, Iraqi Shiites would have no credible protector against Sunni enemies except Tehran.

3) Finally, if the Americans leave, Maliki doesn't want the credit to go to al Qaeda and Muqtada al-Sadr, who'd claim that they forced the Americans out.

In any case, Maliki's is a coalition government in which a majority rejects any arbitrary timetable for US withdrawal. There's also no parliamentary majority for such a demand.

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