Iraq's parliament will vote soon on a proposed pact with the US that would free the country of foreign occupation within three years. The vote itself is a sign of Iraq's slow progress toward peace, unity, and, most of all, democracy – a rare sight in the Middle East. If ratified, the pact will ease one more burden for the incoming Obama presidency.
The pact's timetable for a US troop withdrawal, however, is longer than the 16-month schedule that Barack Obama has promised. Still, the fact that Iraq demanded – and won – a deadline of Dec. 31, 2011, from a reluctant President Bush removes one of Mr. Obama's reasons for a unilateral pullout: to put pressure on Iraqi leaders to take on more security and further reconcile political differences.
Iraq's Army and police are far more competent than before the US troop surge and the political turnaround of Sunni tribal leaders during 2006-07. Radical groups, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, are on the run after making critical mistakes. And, more than five years after the US ousted Saddam Hussein, the economy is on the mend in spite of ongoing violence.
While Obama is eager to divert money being spent in Iraq to other needs, such as Afghanistan and American healthcare, it is difficult to imagine he would give up the gains of the past two years by ordering a pullout that ignores lingering security concerns or risks the ire of the US military. To do so would play into the hands of Iran, the meddling neighbor with the budding nuclear weapons capability that is also bent on regional dominance.
Most critical for further political stability is a US military presence during this January's provincial elections, and then for important national elections in December 2009. The latter will help cement the Sunni minority's political stake in Iraq's democracy.
Pressure to approve the pact is driven by the Dec. 31, 2009 expiration of the UN mandate for the US-led occupation. A raucous, televised debate in parliament over ratifying the pact reveals just how much Sunnis still expect of a Shiite-led government.
While the agreement could pass with only pro-government lawmakers, Iraq's future would be more secure if a broad consensus were reached. That may require side-deals by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to further accommodate Sunni demands, such as more representation in government.
US pressure is still needed to help the Sunnis and Kurds find a larger role and resolve difficult problems, such as control of the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk.
But if the pact is approved, it will signify that Iraq is on an equal footing with the US, claiming sovereignty, independence, and a clear rejection of terrorism.
While this rebirth may not ring with historic drama as a decisive military battle might, it signals the blossoming of a religiously tolerant and democratic Muslim state in a region that could use such a model of "soft power." For that, the US effort may have been worth it despite post-invasion mistakes.
If he manages the withdrawal schedule well, Obama might even claim some of the credit for a reborn Iraq, free of dictatorship.
For now, however, it is Iraqis who must act by approving this agreement with the US.