Who would have thought the U.S. and Iraq would enter into their own (costly) game of brinksmanship?

Part diplomatic discussion, part union negotiation, the current contract in this case — the U.N. mandate and the legal basis for the U.S. to operate in Iraq — evaporates midnight Dec. 31. Representatives of the two nations have hammered out a deal that must be approved by the Iraqi parliament. This status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) covering the role of U.S. forces in Iraq would take effect Jan 1.

That’s 2009. That’s less than 70 days. That’s well over 100,000 U.S. military personnel and contractors in the eye of this storm.

Decreased violence and improved stability throughout Iraq have taken the one-time hot-button issue off the front pages and out of the fall’s political campaigns. Despite fixation on the financial markets, this challenge in Iraq remains. While it is akin to having a contract end, those thousands of Americans serving will not have the protection they have with the current U.N. mandate or SOFAs in other countries. They will have no legal basis to be in Iraq and might be subject to Iraqi law. Happy New Year: More than a few well-meaning Americans might find themselves embroiled in the Iraqi legal system.

The agreement that is on-the-table and then off (apparently depending on the mood of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his cabinet of merry men) calls for U.S. combat troops to be out of Iraqi cities by June 2009 and all forces gone by the close of 2011, unless there is another agreement or extension.

Defense Secretary and occasional Super Hero Robert M. Gates and Chair of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael Mullen, USN, have expressed the urgency of the issue. Mad Mike stated the Iraqis are “running out of time” and they would be unable to handle their nation’s security without U.S. support. (Insulting the Iraqis probably is not going to move this any faster.) Gates played good cop to Mad Mike’s bad cop, praising the agreement, noting it was good for everybody and good for “Iraqi sovereignty.” Our guess is the parliamentarians preferred the Super Hero’s approach. (The Iraqi government has not been the fastest to act on much of anything. This agreement might prove no different.)

There are reports that Iran is less-than-pleased with the agreement and would prefer no agreement. It has been said Iraq’s former foe has tried bribes and other means to kill the deal.

(At the same time Russia supports an extension of the U.N. mandate keeping the U.S in Iraq. Of course it does.)

Given the very different and very unhappy parties involved, the almost-guaranteed daily drama over the next two months will be the one to watch. Rejection of the agreement will pose a tremendous challenge to a commander in chief with 20 days left in office.

And THAT might be what all sides are banking on.

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