The Iraqi government wants troops out of Iraq on a timeline similar to that of Presidential candidate Obama, a fact highlighted in Obama's visit to Iraq this week. It is hard to argue that a long term U.S. troop presence is appropriate when the Iraqi civilian government whose invitation we claim provides the legal basis for our presence in the country wants us to withdraw.
Meanwhile, Iraqi provincial elections look likely to be delayed until after the U.S. Presidential elections.
These elections have the potential to shift power from the central government to provincial and/or regional governments. Provincial and regional governments would be less prone to deadlock than the Iraqi parliament. They would not have supermajority requirements to pass legislation, as the national parliament does in an effort to secure multi-ethnic consensus, and they would have more ethnically homogeneous representatives.
Provincial elections are likely to produce ethnically homogeneous groups of elected officials because the Iraqi civil war in the aftermath of of U.S. invasion has segregated the country on ethnic lines. Predominantly Sunni areas are more so now. Predominantly Shi'ite areas are more so now. Kurdish isolation and autonomy have remained. Most mixed neighborhoods have seen the minority in their larger region flee. Provinces that still have ethnically mixed populations, like Baghadad, increasingly have strictly ethnically segregated neighborhoods.
The effect of the last round of national elections was to shut Sunnis out of the political process. They are a minority nationally, so they have no hope of ever out voting a Kurdish-Shi'ite or unilateral Shi'ite parliamentary majority, although supermajority requirements give their representatives a limited veto power of certain kinds of legislation if they can hold together. Existing Sunni representatives in the Iraqi parliament also got there by denying a boycott of the elections which the vast majority of Sunnis in Sunni dominated regions joined, a fact that limits their legitimacy as leaders for Iraqi Sunnis.
New provincial elections could establish a class of legitimate Iraqi Sunni political leaders to replace the current crop of Sunni parliamentarians, and could give Iraqi Sunni's political power in the provinces where they are a majority, provinces that are now home to most Iraqi Sunnis in the country. This would give Iraqi Sunnis a stake in supporting the existing governmental structure, rather than undermining it with continued military insurgency efforts. A massive decentralization of governmental power could make it easier for governments to carry out their functions without being hamstrung by pervasive political infighting that infects even basically non-partisan issues.
New elections and the formation of regional governments through the merger of some of these regions, also form the basis for a possible "hard" (i.e. true independence) or "soft" (i.e. autonomy with a weak central government) partition of Iraq, with a Southeastern Shi'ite autonomous region, a Northern Kurdish autonomous region, a Western Sunni autonomous region or province, and a few central provinces that would not be as homogeneous but would also have fewer ethnic groups with representatives than the national parliament, something that would presumably make multi-ethnic agreements easier to reach.
For McCain, who already embarassed himself this week by calling for increased security on the non-existent "Iraq-Pakistan border" on morning daytime TV, this may deny him an opportunity to show that Iraq is really making progress as a result of the Iraq War which is supports unconditionally. In November of 2008, provincial elections will be only another empty promise that may or may not actually come into being. Unless Americans change their minds on Iraq and come around to McCain's point of view, his prospects at the polls are dim.