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Want That Iraqi Referendum on Troop Withdrawals?

Marc Lynch flags — and argues with — an apparent position taken by Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, in favor of taking until the end of 2009 to figure out how to withdraw troops more thoroughly. To some degree, I’m not really sure, judging from Odierno’s interview with The New York Times, that Odierno’s advocating something significantly different from what President Obama has proposed, at least as far as 2009 goes. Obama has indicated in the past that the 16-month timeline isn’t ironclad; and you *want *the ground commander making a strong case pushing back against Obama’s plans, in order to arrive at the best strategic judgment. And there’s no doubt that Obama is going to end the war: he’s said so from his first meeting on Iraq, and in any case, the Status of Forces Agreement guarantees that U.S. troops will be out by 2011.

But the considerations don’t really end there. Odierno is making a case for having breathing room on withdrawal. But, as Marc reminds, his public positions in that regard might end up restricting that breathing room:

The politics of this aside, I think that Odierno’s intention of keeping troops in Iraq through the national elections is dangerously wrong. The CFR/Brookings/Odierno “go slow” approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer — which may well fail if there is no sign of departing American troops. It sends the wrong messages to Iraqi politicians and the Iraqi population.

I’ve harped on this point in the past. Iraq will undergo provincial elections Saturday, and the shake-out from that is unclear as yet. But looming on the horizon is a prospective referendum, pushed by the Iraqi legislature — the composition of which won’t change after the election – to push up the date of U.S. withdrawal to 2010. It’s a safe bet that the Iraqis, who in general are skeptical that the United States will actually get out of Iraq, will interpret Odierno’s comments with, to say the least, impatience. That would contribute, particularly in a politics-heavy environment, to an Iraqi push to force the referendum through, thereby denying Odierno precisely the operational flexibility he appears to seek.

One last thing: watch conservatives use Odierno as a bloody shirt to wave against Obama’s withdrawal plans. This quote in The Times’ piece from former Bush deputy national security adviser J.D. Crouch is a preview of things to come:

“They don’t want to alienate the military. And there’s something to be said that the guy who got things under control over there, Ray Odierno, probably has a good idea of what he needs.”

Since the Marines want out of Iraq, it’s really hard to see how getting out “alienates” the military. But watch this meme develop.

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