PRESIDENT BUSH has been embarrassed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Bush had set a goal of July 31 for a security agreement with Malikis government. The key to negotiating such an accord, for Bush, was to avoid setting a firm date for withdrawal of US combat troops. Bush has insisted that the timing and pacing of a withdrawal had to be determined solely by conditions on the ground a mantra that GOP presidential candidate John McCain has echoed faithfully.
But now Maliki is demanding a specific deadline for the withdrawal not only of American combat troops but of all US forces of any kind. Malikis aides are saying that the latest date for the departure of the last American soldier from Iraq must be the end of 2011. Maliki himself told an audience of tribal sheikhs Monday, There can be no treaty or agreement except on the basis of Iraqs full sovereignty. To make clear his utter rejection of the Bush formula, Maliki insisted that no foreign soldier remains in Iraq after a specific deadline, saying he would not settle for an open time frame.
Maliki does not want an American president to decide when conditions are ripe for even a partial withdrawal of US forces. Malikis allusion to Iraqi sovereignty also means that he is still resisting American demands that US forces though not private contractors must enjoy immunity from Iraqi laws. To grant the Americans open immunity, he told the tribal sheikhs, would be to betray the sanctity of Iraqi blood.
The take-away message for Bush and for McCain as well is that an elected Iraqi government is standing up and telling its American protectors it wants them to stand down by a date certain. There are politics today in Iraq, and Malikis stance pleases the Iraqi public and is sure to help his political partners in upcoming provincial and parliamentary elections.
If Bush continues refusing to accept the timetable that Iraqis want, he will make a mockery of his claim to have invaded and occupied Iraq in order to spread democracy there. Iraqis have pretty well crushed Al Qaeda with American help, and they are beginning to sort out their factional power struggles. If they want a sure date for US withdrawal, they should get it. Otherwise, Bush will only vindicate those critics of the war who said he invaded Iraq to establish permanent military bases and gain control of the countrys enormous oil reserves.