There’s a lot less than meets the eye in the rumored US-Iraq accord.

On the surface, it would seem that the US and Iraqi negotiators have sought to cut the baby in half, splitting the difference between Barack Obama’s 16-month timetable that would remove US combat forces by 2010 and McCain’s sort-of timetable to have US combat troops out by 2013. If early reports are true, American combat forces would remain in until the end of 2011, roughly halfway between the “Obama plan” and the “McCain plan.” In addition, as envisioned in both the candidates’ plans, tens of thousands of additional US forces would remain in Iraq to train and equip the Iraqi armed forces, battle terrorists, protect the Rhode Island-sized US embassy, and help Iraq secure its borders.

Not much to get excited about. Here’s the way to read what’s going on behind the scenes.

It’s tempting to see the US-Iraq talks as somehow related to the political imperative of the 2008 campaign, but that’s myopic. There’s a real American strategy at work here, and it’s one that most of Obama’s advisers and many of McCain’s can sign on to. The primary objective is to preserve the US alliance with the ruling Shiite-Kurdish bloc in Baghdad, a task that is becoming more and more difficult as time passes. Driven by the need to secure a legal basis for US forces to stay in Iraq beyond December 31, when the UN authority expires, the United States desperately needs an agreement.

But to get such an agreement, they have to craft language that Prime Minister Maliki can live with. Earlier this year, it appeared as if the United States was going to cram an agreement down the throat of the Iraqi government. Because that government is so heavily dependent on US military and political support, the Bush administration might have been able to do just that. Apparently, however, cooler heads in Washington — reinforced by insistent pleading from the Maliki regime — convinced Bush and Co. to accommodate Baghdad. Nationalist pressure on Maliki is so strong that any agreement that simply extends the US mandate in Iraq without a timetable, and without restrictions on the activities of private security companies, would have fatally wounded the Maliki government. So negotiators are trying to craft an accord that Maliki can live with, but which preserves the independence of US forces.

The jury’s still out on whether either side can pull this off. Anti-occupation nationalists in Iraq will scrutinize the accord, and it may or may not win the approval of Iraq’s national assembly. Even so, given the slow-moving nature of the Iraqi political system, approval of the proposed pact might go right down to the wire, i.e., sometime in mid- to late December. And that’s assuming that the United States can swallow some of the proposed Iraqi amendments. It’s still possible that the entire edifice will collapse, and that the two sides will move to the fall-back position of an ad hoc accord that simply extend the mandate another six months. That would give the headache to the next president.

No matter. The real issue is what’s happening on the ground in Iraq. Lots of crises are ready to boil over, and none of them depend on the success or failure of the US-Iraq accord.

First, there is the urgent issue of Kirkuk. No one has a solution for that one, although the United Nations is trying to come up with a square-the-circle plan that would neutralize the Kurds’ overambitious scheme to absorb Kirkuk into Kurdistan. That problem scuttled the Iraqi parliament’s efforts to come up with an election law for provincial elections, and it’s no closer to being solved than it was in 2003. An eruption in Kirkuk could instantly spark a three-sided civil war.

Second, there is the ongoing Shiite assault against the Sunni bloc. Earlier this week, what was reputed to be a “rogue” Shiite security force attacked the independent, have mostly Sunni, political leadership of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. More importantly, dozens of leaders of the so-called Awakening, or Sons of Iraq movement, are being assassinated or intimidated by Iraqi army and police units and Shiite death squads. In today’s Times, under the headline “Iraq Takes Aim at Leaders of US-Tied Sunni Groups,” a leader of the militantly sectarian Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) — part of Maliki’s coalition and heavily supported by Shiite Iran — is quoted saying: “The state cannot accept the Awakening. Their days are numbered.” He’s talking about 100,000 armed men, many former insurgents, who won’t go quietly.

Third, there is the uncertain, and mysterious, silence of the Mahdi Army. Since last August, nearly a year, they’ve been standing down, and their strongholds (in Basra, Amarah, and Baghdad) have been nominally taken over by the Iraqi armed forces. But US military sources say that the Mahdi Army is keeping its powder dry, and that many of its fighters and commanders have retreated to Iran for training and re-supply. It isn’t at all clear that Maliki and ISCI have won the battle against the Mahdi Army and Muqtada al-Sadr.

It’s tempting, too, to see all the talk about a timetable for withdrawal, “aspirational” or not, as a rebuke to McCain. And maybe it is. But as long as Obama allows the debate to focus on whether or not the surge worked, McCain will win. (Recent polls already have started to show that while Obama beats McCain on most issues, he loses to McCain on the question of who is better suited to handle the war in Iraq.) The task for Obama is to hammer away at McCain’s original judgment about the war, about his enthusiastic cheerleading for attacking Iraq from the late 1990s through March, 2003, and his connections to people like Randy Scheunemann, his top foreign policy adviser, who single-handedly led the charge for war as head of the neocon-inspired Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. That’s a debate Obama can win.