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The second 100 days: where minefields await

Here is a cautionary tale, not about President Obama’s first 100 days in office, but about the challenges looming on Day 101.

Back before the Sunni Awakening, when U.S. troops were still the targets of mortar attacks and improvised explosive devices in Iraq, I hitched a ride to Baghdad with the Washington Post’s experienced Middle East correspondent, Anthony Shadid.

There were no commercial flights into Iraq at the time, so we hired a driver and an SUV in Jordan and, literally, raced to the Iraqi capital. We bribed border guards and kept watch for “Ali Babas” — the bandits that operated along the way and could relieve us of our equipment, the SUV, and the fat rolls of $100 bills we carried.

The one thing I did not fret about was the road. The four-lane highway, running through the western Iraq desert, was a marvel of engineering. I asked Anthony: “Why was it so important to Saddam Hussein to build such a great highway to Jordan?”

“It’s the road to Israel,” Shadid replied — the route the Iraqi tanks would take on the day that Saddam attacked the Jews. And so I got another lesson in the madness of the region.

The road runs both ways, of course, and that is the challenge for Obama. If the Israelis decide to bomb Iran’s nuclear power program, their warplanes will need to cross Iraqi air space. Which the United States, right now, controls.

There are roundabout routes through Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and one can’t eliminate the possibility that the Arabs or the Turks might help the Jews attack the Persians. This is, after all, the Middle East. But even then, some level of U.S. help will be required.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the hard-liner who heads the new right-wing Israeli government, is scheduled to arrive in Washington in mid-May. According to recent reports, Netanyahu intends to tell Obama that the U.S. needs to solve Israel’s Iran problem before Israel will cooperate on a regional peace plan that includes a Palestinian state.

The U.S. wants to work the other way, of course: to defuse tension in the region by getting the Israelis and Palestinians to agree on a two-state solution. In a more peaceful and stable Middle East, the reasoning goes, the Iranians will be more cooperative.

Last week, Obama acknowledged that America has been doing a lot of “listening” to the various parties in the region, but that the day is approaching when the U.S. will insist on acts of good faith.

And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifying on Capital Hill, warned Jerusalem that, "For Israel to get the kind of strong support it is looking for vis-a-vis Iran, it can’t stay on the sidelines with respect to the Palestinians and the peace efforts."

So who blinks? Bibi or Barack?

Welcome, Mr. President, to the second hundred days.