The Iraqi National Assembly approved the status-of-forces agreement yesterday that will keep American troops in Iraq for the next three years.  The pact will change the nature of the US operations and their relationship with the developing Iraqi forces, but along an evolutionary timeline rather than any abrupt retreat or withdrawal.  Sudarsan Raghavan at the Washington Post manages to get that much wrong:

The Iraqi parliament on Thursday approved a security pact that requires the U.S. military to end its presence in Iraq in 2011, eight years after a U.S.-led invasion brought about the fall of Saddam Hussein.

“It’s a historic day for the great Iraqi people,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a nationally televised address. “It represents the first step on the road to regain national sovereignty.”

Just over half of the parliament members voted to approve the agreement, which will give the United States a legal basis to maintain its forces in Iraq but requires American commanders to work more closely with Iraqi authorities than they have in the past. A United Nations mandate authorizing the U.S. presence expires Dec. 31.

The pact also restricts the powers of the U.S. military to search homes, detain Iraqi citizens and conduct military operations, and gives Iraqi officials oversight over American forces. U.S. troops could be prosecuted under Iraqi laws for serious crimes committed when off duty and off their bases, although the United States retains the power to determine whether a service member was off duty. Still, the changes represent a dramatic shift for a nation where most citizens felt humiliation at having American troops on their soil.

Raghavan relies too much on Maliki’s press team.  First, the act of approving the SOFA demonstrates Iraq’s sovereignty.  Iraq could have insisted on our outright departure, and it would have left us with no choice but to leave.  Maliki doesn’t want that, but he knows that the Iraqi people do, and so he’s selling this as a “first step” towards the sovereignty this agreement proves exists already for his own political purposes.  We could have left Iraq in a year or less if necessary and demanded by Maliki, not three.

The transition Raghavan describes has been well under way for a year.  The US has already relinquished command over most of Iraq’s provinces, leaving the Iraqi Army in charge and the US in support and logistics roles only.  The worst of them, Anbar, got transferred to Iraqi Army control during the summer.  The only big change comes in the ability of Iraqi courts to have jurisdiction over off-duty American personnel, but the US gets to determine what “off duty” means.

And finally, the SOFA does not require an American withdrawal at all.  It actually legitimizes an American presence for an additional three years, at which point Iraq can negotiate for an extension or let it expire.  The US could withdraw earlier if we want, or could agree to stay indefinitely.  The Iraqis won’t have a competent air force for several years, which makes a complete withdrawal highly unlikely by 2012. Their navy is almost nonexistent, too, which will take even longer to re-establish.

The SOFA represents a major step in codifying an alliance between the US and Iraq, but not the nonsense spouted by Maliki and repeated by the Post.  Iraq’s potential enemies in the region know and understand this.  Iran and Syria both publicly opposed the pact and criticized it, and the Iraqi parliament’s passage of it demonstrated their defiance towards the two terror-supporting nations on either side of Iraq.  In that sense, the SOFA vote was a demonstration of national sovereignty and a notice that they would not become a satellite nation to Tehran.

Update: Irony alert!  “Presence”, not “presents”.  Eeesh.  Can’t believe I made that mistake on Black Friday.