IT seems an odd moment for the government of Iraq to announce that it plans to hold a referendum on whether American troops should leave the country one full year earlier than the existing agreement stipulates. The weeks that have passed since US forces absented themselves from the streets of Iraq's cities have not been encouraging for those who believe that Iraq's own security forces are already capable of keeping the peace. Although it is understandable that prime minister al-Maliki wants to show he is master in his own house he must also know that a serious upswing in sectarian violence or external interference would work against his ambition.

The existing Iraqi-US agreement calls for the completion of the departure of 125'000 remaining US forces by December 2011; the proposed referendum would ask whether the pull-out deadline should be advanced to the end of next year.

Those believing that Iraq cannot move forward politically or economically until the occupying power has departed will probably support a move to December 2010, but those who most want as long a period as possible free of communal tensions and bombings may well think that a delay in the US departure would be a better option. Of course, President Obama might welcome an earlier withdrawal than planned; he needs more forces in Afghanistan.


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