Odierno: Deadlines may be broken

When George Bush signed off on the Status of Forces Agreement with Iraq late last year, Barack Obama had to draw a sigh of relief.  After having been proven wrong on the surge and his demand for retreat in Iraq, Obama now had a framework for withdrawal for which he had no political responsibility.  With Bush agreeing to withdraw American troops from Iraqi cities by June 30th, all Obama had to do was follow the script.

Unfortunately, the SOFA may not be that comfy after all.  General Ray Odierno now warns that the Americans may have to miss the June 30 deadline in at least two cities, if Nouri al-Maliki agrees that his forces are not quite ready to face off alone against resistant al-Qaeda remnants:

The activities of al-Qaeda in two of Iraq’s most troubled cities could keep US combat troops engaged beyond the June 30 deadline for their withdrawal, the top US commander in the country has warned.

US troop numbers in Mosul and Baqubah, in the north of the country, could rise rather than fall over the next year if necessary, General Ray Odierno told The Times in his first interview with a British newspaper since taking over from General David Petraeus in September.

He said that a joint assessment would be conducted with the Iraqi authorities in the coming weeks before a decision is made.

Maliki could flat-out refuse to allow the deadline to slip, which would make things easier for Obama.  Maliki’s insistence on timetables over conditions might make sense for him.  The SOFA had limited popularity in Iraq, and what popularity it enjoyed came from the pullback of American troops at the end of June.  He might figure that a delay in two cities won’t cost him much, especially if a pullback emboldens AQI, but Maliki may also believe his own troops to be ready to handle the job.

If Maliki agrees to a delay, that will set back Obama’s plans to draw down troops in Iraq, and that will create more problems for him at home.  His own caucus has become restive on the issue of war funding, wanting commitments to exit strategies and timetables in exchange for funding — an ironic consistency between Obama and Bush. They’re not going to want to hear that Obama has extended the combat status of forces in Iraq, even if we’re fighting terrorists in Mosul and Baqubah.

Obama can’t afford to let Iraq slip back into chaos, either, since Bush handed him an almost-finished victory there.  Losing Iraq would be a disaster for Obama, at home and abroad.  Odierno’s assessment puts him in a tough position, with no easy answers.  Will he demonstrate leadership and adjust to the changing conditions, or will he acquiesce to his anti-war base and demand a strict adherence to the SOFA even while terrorists remain in northern Iraq?   I hope it’s the former, but I fear — from Obama’s own rhetoric and previous bad choices — it will be the latter.