The Note: Welcoming Gifts

Someone remember to write down the address, so Sen. Barack Obama can send that thank-you note.

Whatever his motivations, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did Obama a huge favor with the magazine interview where he seemed to back Obama's plans for Iraq -- offering him a better welcome than if he had been greeted with flowers as a liberator.

One little interview changed the storyline for this portion of the trip -- and boosted Obama's credibility on the subject at hand. Now, it's McCain on the defensive -- needing to explain why he differs from Obama, Maliki -- and maybe even the Bush administration, backers of a "time horizon" (no frames, there) for troop withdrawal.

"In Iraq, controversy continued to reverberate between the United States and Iraqi governments over a weekend news report that Mr. Maliki had expressed support for Mr. Obama's proposal to withdraw American combat troops within 16 months of January," Sabrina Tavernise and Jeff Zeleny write in The New York Times. "The reported comments came after Mr. Bush agreed on Friday to a 'general time horizon' for pulling out troops from Iraq without a specific timeline."

This is hard to walk back: "The following is a direct translation from the Arabic of Mr. Maliki's comments by The Times: 'Obama's remarks that -- if he takes office -- in 16 months he would withdraw the forces, we think that this period could increase or decrease a little, but that it could be suitable to end the presence of the forces in Iraq.' He continued: 'Who wants to exit in a quicker way has a better assessment of the situation in Iraq.' "

This gets the trip off on the right foot: "Senator Obama meets with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. The two apparently have a lot in common," ABC's Terry Moran reported Monday on "Good Morning America." "Over the weekend, Maliki shocked the Bush White House."

While in Iraq, Obama will be interviewed by Terry Moran for a special edition of "Nightline" Monday -- with portions to be broadcast on "World News" and "Good Morning America" as well.

Maliki's comments may not have been an accident: "Confusion over the Iraqi prime minister's seeming endorsement of Barack Obama's troop withdrawal plan is part of Baghdad's strategy to play U.S. politics for the best deal possible over America's military mission," the AP's Robert H. Reid writes. One goal: To "exploit Obama's position on the war to force the Bush administration into accepting concessions considered unthinkable a few months ago," Reid reports.

Suddenly, Obama's Iraq trip has a much bigger upside: "Washington-Baghdad move to a 'general time horizon' and Maliki's comments have plainly focused the Iraq debate on terms preferred by Obama, just as he is poised to touch down on Iraqi soil," Politico's Jonathan Martin reports.

"Maliki has not specified a time frame, but one of his closest Dawa Party allies has said Obama's plan coincides closely with government thinking," Liz Sly writes in the Chicago Tribune. "The Iraqi government's position is far from unanimous, however, and as with so many things in Iraq, opinion is split along sectarian and political lines."

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