Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, U.S. President Obama and the Baghdad Bombings

The terrible blasts in Baghdad yesterday did more than terrify Baghdadis, they have created a problem for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that could turn into a problem for President Obama.

In early 2010, Iraqis will go to the polls to elect a new parliament, and with it, a new prime minister. Maliki is running very explicitly as a nationalist candidate above the sectarian fray and the only man who has delivered security and essential services. Despite the Prime Minister’s best efforts, Iraqis remain frustrated with the state of their country’s basic services, thus Maliki’s electoral appeal has largely been based on security a platform that is gravely threatened by yesterday’s bombings (coupled with the equally horrific attacks on August 19).

Moreover, the Prime Minister’s appeal also rests on the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq’s cities, which took place on June 30. In so doing, Maliki set up a poweful political message that he and he alone could simultaneously provide security, end the American occupation and maintain a long-term strategic relationship with the United States. This Iraqi trifecta was an electoral winner because it played perfectly to widespread Iraqi mixed feelings about the American presence. Most Iraqis want the United States to leave, but are terrified that we actually will.

Yesterday’s blasts call this aspect of the prime minister’s popularity into question as well, creating a dilemma for him: to reassure the populace that they are secure (and that he is doing everything he can to ensure their security) he may feel it necessary to bring the American troops back into the cities (at least Baghdad) to some limited extent. But if he does so, his previous claims to having provided that security without the Americans will have been undermined. If he chooses not to do so, and there are more such attacks, he risks being obliterated at the polls for having pushed out the Americans prematurely.

None of this is good news for President Obama. He cannot pull American troops out of Iraq only to have the place collapse back into civil war and he has stated that he will not do so. For that reason, he can’t refuse a request from PM Maliki to return the U.S. troops to Baghdad. But doing so will make it very difficult to stick to the 19-month troop drawdown he unveiled in February, and which may be necessary if he chooses to greatly increase American forces in Afghanistan. The president needs the Iraqis to be able to provide for their own security, thus allowing the drawdown. To use a diplomatic term of understatement, returning American troops to Iraqi cities, or even just Baghdad, would be “unhelpful” to that goal.