How Long Will the U.S. Army Remain in Iraq?

Kurdistan's inhabitants experienced a few tense days at the beginning of last month. Iraq's president, Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, flew to the United States to undergo complex heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. The 74-year-old had already received heart treatment at the King Hussein Medical Center in Jordan after he collapsed from exhaustion in early 2007. This time at least he had enough time to prepare his political will and testament in case the operation didn't go well.

Before his flight, he gathered the leaders of his Kurdish party (the other main party is led by Massoud Barzani) and decided who would succeed him in both the party leadership and in his role as Iraqi president. Sources in Kurdistan told Haaretz that "there is nothing unusual about that, that's how a responsible government head behaves, and that's how a responsible tribal leader behaves. The candidates proposed by Talabani are worthy and willing." But nobody was willing to commit himself on whether Talabani's will would be executed if he died.

In any case, everything went well. Talabani was released from the hospital and even managed to pass through Washington before returning to Baghdad. Washington could also breathe easy after the successful operation, because Talabani in his three years as president has proven himself the most important mediator between the American forces and the political constellation that comprises the Iraqi parliament and government. He knows when to threaten and when to give in, whom to phone in the middle of the night and whom to turn away. According to an associate in Kurdistan: "Without Talabani the Iraqi government would not have lasted so long."

His rivals in Kurdistan attribute to Talabani the characteristics of a tyrant who does not allow opposition in the Kurdish zone. "He intervenes in every issue, including the appointment of journalists in the local newspapers or family quarrels. He behaves like a tribal leader rather than a modern one," says an opponent in Kurdistan.

According to an important Kurdish journalist: "Try to find any criticism against Iran in a Kurdish paper that is published in Sulaymaniyah. You won't find any. Talabani forbids criticism of Iran because Iran is Kurdistan's source of supply and livelihood. When Iran and Turkey bombed Kurdish villages you heard mainly criticism of Turkey; it was as if Iran had done nothing."

Iran's key position in Iraq in general and in Kurdistan in particular also guarantees its status in the agreement being formulated between the United States and Iraq on the U.S. forces in Iraq. This agreement, which Washington had hoped to sign by the end of July, is being delayed because Washington seeks maximum flexibility in wielding power, while the Iraqi government wants a framework for American activities to be spelled out. Washington has also demanded that its forces be allowed to remain until 2015, deep into the next U.S. president's second term, while the Iraqi government wants the forces out by 2010.

The compromise is that 2011 will be the last year for American forces in Iraq. That way Bush's Washington will be able to ensure that if Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is elected he will still be bound to Bush's Iraq policy. Washington also wanted Iraq to serve as a launching pad for a counterattack against "the enemies of Iraq"; in other words, Iran. But that is opposed not only by Iraq's Shi'ite leaders, but by Talabani and the Kurdish leadership as well. Washington was forced to give in here too, and the agreement will not include a formulation that permits attacks from Iraq on other countries.

The main obstacle at the moment is the American forces' status in relation to Iraqi law. Can the Iraqi government try American soldiers who harm civilians or will the soldiers enjoy immunity? There is a sweeping agreement among the Iraqi leadership that such immunity should not be granted because it would significantly limit Iraqi sovereignty. The question is which American soldier would agree to operate in Iraq if he knows he is liable to stand trial before Iraqi judges.

On all these issues Talabani's intervention is essential. The Americans believe he will find a compromise that will be acceptable to everyone. After all, the Kurds hold several important cards vis-a-vis the Iraqi government, such as the status of Kirkuk and the Federal Oil Law; perhaps these cards can be exploited to achieve a better agreement for the Americans.

A Kurdish spokesman told Haaretz: "The Americans are sure they can enlist the Kurds for every problem they encounter, but where were they when we needed them? Why isn't there a single American base in Kurdistan? Why don't they allow American companies to invest in Kurdish oil fields?

Good question.