Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, told an interviewer in late December that he and his government were adamant that all U.S. combat troops should have left his nation by the end of this year.

That 12-month deadline isn’t new, but working assumptions on both sides of the alliance have been that it would be extended, at least for security forces and for troops providing training for Iraqi military and police units.

That doesn’t appear to be the case, however, and it doesn’t seem as though al-Maliki is only conducting some hard bargaining to get a better deal.

If he is sincere, and he certainly sounded as if he was, that would leave mostly civilian aid workers and a few dozen military representatives working for the U.S. embassy to assist the newly formed government with both economic and security development.

Viewed from one perspective, that would represent a successful outcome to the costly invasion of 2003 that removed Saddam Hussein from power and resulted in a long period of instability and conflict that cost tens of thousands of Iraqi lives, along with the lives of thousands of allied soldiers.

Now that Iraq has established a coalition government including representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish populations, and even members of anti-American groups such as those controlled by “rogue imam” Moqtada al-Sadr, the nation has earned a chance to govern itself in ways that it sees fit.

Doubters, however, say that an Iraq without a significant U.S. military presence will be much more likely to enter into an alliance with neighboring Iran, either willingly or by the application of force by Iranian-supported guerillas already operating in Iraq.

Such a presence, however, could only be possible if the current Status of Forces Agreement governing the current withdrawal schedule is altered by both sides. Such changes are a matter of diplomacy, not military power, and if the United States wants them, it appears it will have to persuade a leader who says he is not persuadable.

Of course, that, too, could be a diplomatic bargaining position. No one will know unless and until the bargaining process begins again. There are risks either way, but the ones involving Iranian influence seem to be greater.