This will certainly test John McCain's famous temper:
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a German magazine he supported prospective U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama's proposal that U.S. troops should leave Iraq within 16 months.
"U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about 16 months. That, we think, would be the right timeframe for a withdrawal, with the possibility of slight changes."
Asked if he supported Obama's ideas more than those of John McCain, Republican presidential hopeful, Maliki said he did not want to recommend who people should vote for.
"Whoever is thinking about the shorter term is closer to reality. Artificially extending the stay of U.S. troops would cause problems."
Will McCain accuse Maliki of making decisions before visiting Iraq and knowing the facts on the ground?
Maliki here -- and for the past couple of weeks more broadly -- is addressing himself to the most fundamental "facts on the ground" in Iraq of all, the gross unpopularity of the American military presence. Under those circumstances, only real desperation (such as the terrible situation prevailing in 2006) makes it make sense for Maliki to uncritically endorse an open-ended presence.
To really understand the importance of Maliki's , comments you need to consider their opposite. Imagine if Maliki had walked in front of the cameras and said, "at this stage, a timetable for withdrawal is unrealistic, and we hope our American friends will not bow to domestic political pressures and be hasty in leaving Iraq just as the country improves." It would be a transformative moment in this election. John McCain would talk of nothing else. The cable shows would talk of nothing else. Magazines would run thousands of covers about "Obama's Iraq Problem." Obama would probably lose the race.
Here are a few post if you need a little context Obama in Afghanistan by Mike Allen, Marc Ambinder on Obama's Rashomonic Trip, John Aravosis thinks Maliki endorses Obama Iraq plan on the eve of Obama visit is huge and Jeb Lewison covers the media reporting on Obama's trip so far Obama lands in Afghanistan.
You'll recall that just a couple of weeks ago Maliki's call for a withdrawal timetable was dismissed by the White House as a "transcription error."
Update: More Maliki
Maliki's statement -- timed, as a reader points out, for maximum effect, coinciding as it does with Obama's visit to Iraq, anchors on the road with Obama, etc. -- is clearly a major moment in the race.
One quick caveat, via the Times: "A spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister has issued a statement saying his remarks were 'misunderstood and mistranslated,' but did not address a specific error." (Second lost-in-translation moment like this.
Meanwhile, McCain tries to make the best of it, arguing that the surge -- which he backed, and Obama opposed -- made this possible.
And Joe Klein points out that Maliki both embraced a timetable and rejected another key McCain plank: A semi-permanent, South-Korea style American presence.
Update #2 : Ben Smith Has More On Maliki
Marc Ambinder has an interesting exchange between the campaigns on the Iraqi prime minister, in which a McCain aide accuses Prime Minister al-Maliki of playing "domestic politics" — which, being a politician, he surely is. It's his job.
But aren't domestic politics just another way of saying "what Iraqis want"? Seems like it's tough for McCain to publicly reject Maliki's stance here, or to attack him for pandering to Iraqi voters.
ALSO: The Democratic Party sends out a 2004 McCain interview in which he appears to acknowledge that:
QUESTION: Let me give you a hypothetical, senator. What would or should we do if, in the post-June 30th period, a so-called sovereign Iraqi government asks us to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there? I understand it's a hypothetical, but it's at least possible.
McCAIN: Well, if that scenario evolves, then I think it's obvious that we would have to leave because— if it was an elected government of Iraq—and we've been asked to leave other places in the world. If it were an extremist government, then I think we would have other challenges, but I don't see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people.