While President-elect Barack Obama’s promise to withdraw United States troops from Iraq within 16 months of the inauguration of his term remains on the table, there are early signs that he will be under pressure to backtrack. The three top military commanders in charge of operations in the theatre are known to be uncomfortable with the notion of a fixed timetable. They subscribe to the incoming commander-in-chief’s position that the occupation of Iraq should not be open-ended. However, they have indicated that they are not enthusiastic about the plan outlined by Mr. Obama during the presidential campaign for the withdrawal of two combat brigades per month. President George W. Bush has allowed the commanders wide leeway to decide on military matters and they obviously want the status quo to continue. Mr. Obama, while visiting Baghdad during the campaign season, emphasised that as commander-in-chief he would have the prerogative of taking decisions. However, he has not decisively rebuffed the military’s position that it should have effective control over the rate of redeployment because it has a better understanding of the ground situation. As a politician who owes his decisive electoral victory in large part to his anti-war stand, Mr. Obama should have no inhibitions about imposing his will on the generals. He needs to act firmly on the constitutional principle that the President, not the military, makes foreign policy.

Mr. Obama will be aware that Iraqi political forces are becoming increasingly restive about the idea of a prolonged occupation. With the United Nations Security Council resolution authorising the presence of foreign troops due to expire on December 31, 2008, Baghdad and Washington will need to sign a new ‘status of forces’ agreement before that date. During the course of negotiations, even the suppliant Iraqi government has insisted that the agreement should provide for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from all cities by June 30, 2009, and from the entire country by December 31, 2011. Other political forces have called for the immediate departure of the occupation forces. During the election campaign, Mr. Obama argued that a clear timeline for ending the occupation would force the Iraqi government to come to terms with reality, reconcile differences with political opponents, and give up its dependence on foreign patrons. Any dithering, not to mention backsliding, on this defining issue will prove politically costly for the incoming administration, aside from being morally indefensible. The international anti-war coalition must keep the pressure on for the withdrawal of the occupation forces from Iraq — lock, stock, and barrel.