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Could a U.S. pullout from Iraq begin in a matter of weeks? 

By the time this column passes in front of your eyes, our nation will have selected one of two change-promisin' U.S. senators to be the next president of the United States.

One of the many differences between change-we-can-believe-in guy and change-that-feels-all-mavericky guy are their policies on keeping U.S. forces in Iraq.

Change-we-can-believe-in guy attracted much of his political base by vocally opposing the Iraq war and promising to end it quickly if he's elected. He says he wants to have U.S. troops out by May 2010, give or take a few months.

Change-that-feels-all-mavericky guy doesn't want to specify when U.S. troops leave Iraq. He thinks pulling out could plunge Iraq back into civil war and hand a symbolic victory to terrorists.

As it turns out, there's another party out and about with its own thoughts on how long U.S. troops should be in Iraq: Iraqis.

If Iraqis were decent people, they would shut their mustache-topped pie-holes and wait for us to sort out our election before butting in with their demands. But, no, the Iraqis are good-for-nothing ingrates, under the impression that just because they actually live in Iraq, they should have some say over U.S. troop operations. They keep bitching and moaning over the terms of the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement.

A SOFA is the legal framework allowing one country to legally keep its military in another country. The U.S. has SOFAs with 90 countries. At the moment, however, we don't have one with Iraq. We showed up uninvited in 2003 and currently conduct our biznass in Iraq under the legal umbrella of a 2004 United Nations resolution. The resolution expires Dec. 31.

Since the middle of the year, the Bush administration has been trying to get Iraqis to sign a SOFA. Iraq's government has balked – not because they want us out, but because the terms we've been demanding offend them.

Earlier this year, Bush & Co. demanded a SOFA that would allow 58 U.S. military bases in Iraq and the right to operate freely from those bases without Iraqi government consent. In practical terms, the U.S. was saying that not only can the U.S. continue to act as it wishes in Iraq, but the U.S. could also use Iraqi bases to launch strikes against Iraq's neighbors, like, say, Iran.

The Iraqi government's response: hell to the no-no-no.

Iraq is demanding at least some control over the activities of U.S. troops. The U.S. wouldn't give Iraqi forces carte blanche to shoot at cars on I-95 in Virginia because the drivers wouldn't stop when they asked to. Why should Iraq's government grant the same right to Americans?

Iraq is also wary of giving the U.S. legal cover to use Iraq to strike its neighbors. A recent U.S. strike across Iraq's border in Syria is thought to have hardened Iraqis' views on this point.

Iraq's parliament is dominated by Shi'ite Muslim politicians allied at least partly with Iran's Shi'ite regime. The ongoing threat of a U.S. attack on Iran has prompted Iran to use all of its leverage (including bribery) to stop Iraq's government from approving a SOFA.

Iraqi politicians are also reluctant to be seen kowtowing to the U.S. so close to January 2009's parliamentary elections.

At the moment, there appears to be a last-ditch effort underway to come up with a deal that Iraqi politicians can justify, however flimsily, to their constituents. For example, the U.S. has agreed that U.S. troops off-base and off-duty will be subject to Iraqi law under a new SOFA. If you read the fine print, however, the U.S. would maintain the right to determine whether a U.S. soldier was on or off duty. In other words, the U.S. would keep the right to deny Iraq jurisdiction.

If the U.S. and Iraq can't reach a deal, it's possible both parties will return to the U.N. and ask for an extension of the old resolution.

It's also possible, but highly unlikely, that no agreement will be reached and that U.S. operations in Iraq will grind to a halt. One thing is certain, however. They don't make foreign puppet regimes like they used to.

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