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Road Map in Iraq

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

BARACK OBAMA recently reiterated his campaign promise to order up a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. But the Iraqi parliament has beaten him to it. Its ratification Thursday of a new bilateral military agreement with the United States not only establishes a timetable for the redeployment of American troops but delimits the missions they can undertake between now and the end of 2011. Mr. Obama has always said that his strategy was aimed at forcing Iraqi leaders to take responsibility for their country and its security. In adopting and ratifying the accord, the government and parliament have taken a major step toward that goal.

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By now Mr. Obama and most other opponents of the military surge launched by President Bush nearly two years ago have acknowledged its success in greatly reducing violence around Iraq. The completion of the Status of Forces Agreement and the accompanying strategic partnership accord with the United States shows how far the political system also has come. Two years ago, Mr. Bush's national security adviser wrote a memo questioning whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was able or even willing to assert his authority. But Mr. Maliki has been both skillful and forceful in extracting concessions from the Bush administration -- such as the 2011 withdrawal date -- and winning agreement from Sunni as well as Shiite and Kurdish legislators.

That those politicians were willing to publicly support three more years of American troops in Iraq just weeks before a hotly contested provincial election was another sign that the new democratic system is gaining its footing. Legislators gave themselves an out by requiring a national referendum next year that could allow Iraqi voters to advance the American withdrawal date by a year. But that flinch is less significant than the willingness of the government and parliament to stand up to pressure from Iran, which lobbied heavily against the Iraqi-U.S. accord, as well as to the domestic opposition of the Sadr movement.

The Bush administration worked patiently and tirelessly to negotiate the new agreement, which will have the effect of removing Iraq from United Nations supervision on Jan. 1. Having all but destroyed his presidency through mismanagement of the war, Mr. Bush can now fairly argue as he leaves office that his successor will inherit an Iraqi mission that has been stabilized both militarily and politically. That's not the same thing as the "victory" Mr. Bush has often spoken of; Iraq could still unravel if its leaders or the Obama administration act unwisely. There is now, however, a workable road map for winding down the U.S. troop presence in the country and for consolidating the new political system. Mr. Obama will receive this framework from the president and the Iraqi government he has spent the last two years campaigning against. Though we don't expect him to say so, Mr. Obama is fortunate that he was wrong, both about the surge and about the capacity of Iraq's leaders.


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