The real measure of Iraq's stability is about to be tested.
Forget the surge. That was never more than American political theatre. Yes, violence in Iraqi centres did decline. That actually began before the surge was implemented and that traces back to a number of developments in Iraq at that time.
The tinderbox issue of the moment is the Status of Forces Agreement between the Maliki government and Washington. It supposedly provides for the withdrawal of America forces from Iraq by 2011 but, in reality, it's riddled with so many conditions and escape clauses that withdrawal becomes iffy at best, out of the question at worst.
Everyone has been curious about Muqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army and where they've gone lately. Today, Reuters reports that thousands of Sadr supporters took to the streets of Baghdad to protest the agreement and demand that American forces quit Iraq.
What's entirely uncertain is whether the agreement will be passed by the Iraqi parliament. Asia Times Online reports that the Maliki government, even as it has signed the deal and submitted it to parliament for approval, privately hopes it is defeated:
The Americans announced, against [Maliki's] wishes, the arrest of a senior officer in the Iraqi army on charges of channeling funds from Tehran to radical groups inside Iraq.
The funds were to be used to buy the loyalty of certain Iraqi parliamentarians in order to sink the proposed treaty with the US. Maliki never wanted the much-loathed treaty with Washington, and neither did Tehran. To keep his post, however, he had to go on with American requests to ratify the pact before the end of 2008.
Meanwhile, he turned a blind eye to all those opposing it. In fact, he encouraged them at times because this echoed his own personal beliefs and what he felt best served the interests of both Iraq and Iran. Among other things, the treaty calls for the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraqi cities by June 2009, and from all of Iraq by 2011, "unless requested otherwise by the Iraqi government".
...Within the political system, Maliki remains at odds with the Sadrists, although the tension is low nowadays because of mutual distrust of the American treaty. Maliki is mildly trying - again - to win the favors of Iraqi Sunnis as his relationship remains strained with the two Kurdish heavyweight parties. He wants the Sunnis to oppose the treaty as well, and then cite their opposition with US decision-makers."
If this account is accurate it means that Maliki signed the Status of Forces Agreement because he had to and now is looking to his parliament, including the opposition parties, to take him off the hook by voting it down.
The Americans are putting Maliki under a full court press to deliver a deal before the end of the year. That's when the UN mandate lapses. Without a done deal on January 1, 2009, America becomes an "illegal occupier" and subject to sanctions.
If the deal is signed, sealed and delivered, Iraq would be bound to accept the American occupation for at least two years, the agreement requiring that much notice of revocation.