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Oh, Right, That Iraq Thing's Still Going On

(AP / CBS)
For some reason, this story has not received as much attention as it ought to. Turns out that United States General Ray Odierno and Iraq's leadership are at odds over the timetable for the departure of American forces. How this issue gets resolved is likely to have major implications for both countries and, perhaps, the wider region.

After the U.S. overthrew Saddam in 2003, the northern part of the country turned into a political free-for-all with Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen competing for rights to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. In recent months, violence in the surrounding area has climbed and Odierno now wants to deploy troops to the north of the country to help tamp down the fighting. This would involve American troops patrolling with Iraqi army troops and the Kurdish Peshmerga.

Not so fast. Though Iraq granted the U.S. rights to keep troops in the country until 2011 as part of an earlier status of forces agreement, Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, eyeing a speedier American withdrawal, is pushing for a plebiscite to take place next January.

Why the apparent about-face? University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole offers the intriguing idea that Iran may have had a hand in Maliki's thinking. He suggests that the move may have been pushed by the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is close to Iran's religious leadership. After the summer street demonstrations protesting the outcome of Iran's presidential elections, Cole writes that Tehran may want to hasten the American exit out of fear of "a `color revolution' sponsored by Uncle Sam. "Staging such things from neighboring Iraq would be easier than doing it from a greater distance."

This might not be so terrible. Then again, it could be prelude to the mother of all clustermucks. Let's assume that Iraqi voters decide to wish the U.S. an earlier-than-anticipated bon voyage just as all hell breaks loose up north. What then? And to make it that much more interesting, how about the possibility of Turkish forces intervening to help out their ethnic kin (and smack around the Kurds for good measure.) Not saying it's guaranteed to happen but it could.

In the meantime, the grim reality of Iraq does not cease to disappoint. From the Times Online:

"In yet another sign of how unstable the region is, the authorities have cancelled a census to determine the division of land and oil. It was feared that it would inflame tensions by revealing which side had the better chance of winning a referendum. Ali Baban, the Planning Minister, said: "After hearing the fears, concerns and reservations of political groups in Kirkuk and Ninevah, we decided to slow down the process and the census has been postponed indefinitely."

And President Obama thought he had trouble with the Republicans.

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