Hokey Pokey In Iraq
We put some more troops in, we get all the troops out...
Mixed messages from Iraq over the past 24-48 hours. On the one hand, the Prime Minister has agreed to hold a referendum on the American troop presence in Iraq, which would remove the US forces a year earlier than currently scheduled.
If Iraqi lawmakers sign off on Maliki's initiative to hold a referendum in January on the withdrawal timeline, a majority of voters could annul a standing U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, forcing the military to pull out completely by January 2011 under the terms of a previous law.
It is unclear whether parliament, which is in recess until next month, would approve the referendum. Lawmakers have yet to pass a measure laying the basic ground rules for the Jan. 16 national election, their top legislative priority for the remainder of 2009.
At the same time, the US military wants to break one facet of the status of forces agreement by putting troops back into major cities in the north.
In an effort to defuse mounting Arab-Kurdish tensions, the U.S. military is proposing to deploy troops for the first time in a strip of disputed territory in northern Iraq, the top American general in Iraq said Monday.
....Though the plan is still not finalized, Odierno said that he had discussed it recently with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and with Massoud Barzani, the president of the regional government, and that both had been receptive to the idea.
The New York Times calls this a done deal. So on the one hand, Maliki wants US troops in the north so Al Qaeda in Iraq cannot exploit tensions between Arabs and Kurds, but on the other hand, he favors a referendum that could accelerate the full US withdrawal.
Juan Cole has some thoughts about this. But it sounds to me like the classic tension between policy and politics. It's good politically for Maliki to call for an referendum on withdrawal - the US presence is broadly unpopular. Having open warfare break out in the North, however, wouldn't meet Maliki's goals either, so as long as the US military remains, there's a lot to be gained out of placing them there. It may look incongruous on the outside, but Maliki is speaking different language to different groups.
Meanwhile, a major bombing in Baghdad shows that violence is still a fact of life in the war-torn country. I don't believe that the US military can change that reality after six years in country, so if the referendum passed and the troops had to leave by January 2011 instead of December, I would not necessarily be upset.