The USA's attempt to get a "State of Forces Agreement" that would give the US military open-ended powers as a virtual parallel government in Iraq has failed. Negotiations between the USA and the Iraqi government are now around formulas which call for US troops to be out of Iraq's cities by June next year - there are currently 16,000 within Baghdad, for example - and all US combat forces to be out of Iraq by 2011.
[This is a longer version of the article than appears in the printed paper]
This shift indicates that Nouri al-Maliki's Iraqi government is more confident and assertive. The US radical journalist Michael Schwartz cites an important marker: "The Oil Ministry [has] revived a Saddam-era agreement with the China National Petroleum Corporation... granted a $3 billion contract to develop the Ahdab oil field. Given the growing US-China rivalry over the control of foreign oil sources, the symbolism of this act couldn't have been clearer - especially since the earlier contract had been unceremoniously canceled by the United States at the beginning of the occupation in 2003".
The social situation in Iraq is still hellish by the standards of any stable civil society, but calmer than it was.
Civilian deaths from violence are now about 500 a month, as against over 3500 a month in late 2006. About 10,000 people a month are fleeing their homes, rather than about 90,000.
US military deaths were down to eight a month in July-August, from a peak of 120-odd. The number of Iraqi civilians killed by US troops has declined from over one a day in 2005 to almost none.
Attacks on oil pipelines and installations have decreased from almost one a day to one a month. Crude oil production has risen from about two million barrels a day to 2.5; with oil prices high, this brings the Iraqi government large revenues.
Baghdad still has an average of only 11 hours electricity a day, but that is up from six hours last summer. Inflation has slackened. Unemployment remains high - about 25 to 40% - but Baghdad university reports that student attendance is up from 50% in 2006-7 to 80% in 2007-8.
In short, the Iraqi army, the state administration, and the Maliki government have begun to congeal into something solid.
Socialist Worker claims that the USA's climbdown on the State of Forces Agreement was due to "growing opposition... widespread anger... Iraqi rebellion... huge anger... Iraqis took to the streets in protest" (Socialist Worker, 26 August). But that is not what has happened.
The "resistance" hailed by Socialist Worker has got weaker. The Americans managed, after long negotiation, to split off many of the Sunni-sectarian militias from Al Qaeda. Muqtada al-Sadr announced in June that he would turn his Mahdi Army into a "civilian" movement: while his militiamen's guns are surely still within hand's reach, he has shifted emphasis to political agitation.
The wearing-down of the more militant sectarian militias has allowed the skeletal framework of the Iraqi government to begin to acquire a little bit of sinew and muscle, and to become more assertive with the USA.
All of this is unstable. Any US/Maliki deal is bound to have let-out clauses. There are a dozen different reasons why Iraq might lapse back into civil war. Arab-Kurdish disputes over Khanaqin and Kirkuk; the forthcoming provincial elections; and the integration into the Iraqi army of Sunni-sectarian militias who eventually decided they could do a better deal with the USA than with Al-Qaeda, are just three possible flashpoints.
The Pentagon is showing that it is unhappy by insisting on no further reductions in US troop numbers (now at 140,00, after a peak of 171,000) before February 2009. The US administration has frequently signalled that it is unhappy with Nouri al-Maliki (whose exile from Saddam was in Syria, not the USA or Britain) as Iraqi prime minister.
An Obama victory in the US presidential election could add further instability, since Obama's chosen VP candidate, Joe Biden, has been the chief advocate in the US Congress of plans to partition Iraq into three states (Kurdish, Sunni, and Shia: it is very difficult to see how plans for Sunni/ Shia partition could work, and the idea is very unpopular, across a vast range of opinion, in Iraq).
Iraq expert Reidar Visser reports that: "every trace of his 'plan for Iraq' now appears to have been erased from [Biden's] website... Also, Biden’s website specifically devoted to his soft partition schemes, www.planforiraq.com, [has been] quietly shut down". But this may just be Biden keeping quiet during the election campaign, rather than him dropping his plans.
All that said, the basic trend, for now, is that of the Iraqi government - once little more than a disparate collection of careerists sitting in Green Zone offices, with little coordination among themselves and little control over anything outside the Zone - becoming stronger.
Will this semi-demi-stabilisation allow the other key force in the situation, the Iraqi workers' movement, to assert itself more?
Unions should be able to rally their forces, and win wider support, on economic issues - automatic cost-of-living protection for wages; social security for the jobless; public works, under public control (new housing, for example), creating new jobs; better rations; worker control over reconstruction plans; opposition to privatisation, especially of oil.
Working-class political activists can link those issues with political demands: democratic control over local security, backed up by union militias; a new constituent assembly to formulate a democratic constitution including workers' rights; repeal of anti-union laws and decrees; self-determination for Kurdistan and for Arab Iraq...
The openings may be short-lived, and the Iraqi workers' movement has to recover from much battering. But the more that socialists internationally focus our attention on helping the Iraqi workers' movement, rather than applauding that movement's bitter enemies in the sectarian militias, the greater the chances of that movement being able to lead the peoples of Iraq to full democratic self-determination, free from both occupation troops and sectarian militias.