Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to make headlines by posing as an Iraqi nationalist. Don’t buy it.

Unfortunately, much of the media has swallowed Maliki’s posturing without questioning it. The usually astute Leila Fadel, writing for McClatchy, has an article today headlined: “Maliki Demands ‘Specific Deadline’ for US Troop Pullout,” which says:

Maliki said that the United States and Iraq had agreed that all foreign troops would be off Iraqi soil by the end of 2011. “There is an agreement actually reached, reached between the two parties on a fixed date, which is the end of 2011, to end any foreign presence on Iraqi soil,” Maliki said.

Other newspapers and electronic media pick up Maliki’s statement that Iraq wants all US forces out, not just combat troops. The Times headlines its story: “Maliki Pushes for Troop Withdrawal Date,” and it barely questions Maliki’s sincerity, though it does glancingly take note of the nationalist pressure on the Iraqi leader, reporting that “graffiti can be seen on the walls in Shiite districts of Baghdad saying, ‘Iraq for sale: See Maliki.'” The Post headline (“Maliki Demands All U.S. Troops Pull Out by 2011”) says as much, too, portraying Maliki as resolute and unyielding in talks with the United States over a security accord.

But underneath the radar, the Iraqi government and Maliki are sending another signal. The Post makes a greater effort to report the real story, making clear that the tough stand by Maliki is political showmanship designed to play to a nationalist Iraqi public that is tired of the US occupation:

Underlying Maliki’s remarks is the political reality that he must sell the accord to a fractious political establishment and the Iraqi public, which to a large extent views the U.S. military presence as an occupation that should end as soon as possible.

“The agreement will be met with significant public discomfort,” said an aide to Maliki. “So Iraqi officials will resort to using the dates mentioned in the agreement to sell it to the public, even though they might be intended to be used in a guidance way.”

Note the reference to Maliki’s need to “sell it to the public,” even though the 2011 date will be used only as “guidance.”

The reality is that there isn’t much daylight between the Bush administration’s position, which says that US forces will stay in Iraq until “conditions” allow a withdrawal, and Maliki’s proposed 2011 date. Iraqi officials are making it clear that even the 2011 date is flexible and subject to conditions-based reevaluation. The Post quotes an Iraqi official: “If you ask the prime minister, ‘What happens if the situation on the ground changes before 2011?’ then he would obviously say that the dates might need to be changed.”

Of course, that’s equally true of Barack Obama’s Iraq policy, though Obama (like Maliki) would suffer enormously from the domestic political reaction if he wavered on his commitment to withdraw US forces.