A debate is heating up inside Iraq - and inside Washington - that will shape America's relationship with Iraq under the next president.
The debate is over a status of forces agreement (SOFA), a broad strategic framework that will define the long-term role of the U.S. military in Iraq. (The U.N. mandate authorizing the American presence expires at the end of 2008.)
Here's the big irony about this debate for the Bush administration: The security gains produced by the Petraeus-Crocker strategy in Iraq are leading Iraqis to rethink America's role.
The successes of the surge - which many Democrats still won't recognize - are creating an Iraqi political climate less friendly to Bush administration wishes. Iraqi politicians won't accept a Pentagon version of a SOFA seen as an insult to their sovereignty.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Friday that the first draft had "reached a dead end. Any agreement that infringes on Iraq's sovereignty will be dismissed."
On the surface, this debate is over the future of U.S. bases in Iraq, immunity for U.S. soldiers and contractors, and key technical questions such as control of Iraqi airspace. The United States has SOFAs - not considered treaties and traditionally signed under executive authority - with more than 80 countries.
But this SOFA involves issues not present elsewhere.
The White House - and Sen. John McCain - have been tone-deaf on unique aspects of an Iraq agreement. McCain made the comparison again this week with post-World War II treaty arrangements. "Americans are in South Korea," he said. "Americans are in Japan ... in Germany."
Someone needs to give the Arizona Republican an atlas - and a history of Iraq.
Japan and Germany have zero relevance to the Iraq situation. The Middle East has a bitter history of colonial occupation; a significant, long-term U.S. presence in a major Arab nation is not sustainable.
Ali Allawi, a former Iraqi finance minister and respected analyst, told me Iraqis are comparing a potential SOFA to the 1930 Anglo-Iraqi treaty that gave Britain military and economic privileges in exchange for Britain's ending its Iraq mandate.
"Iraqis remember revolts against those seen doing the bidding of the Brits," he said.
Iraqis also recall that huge demonstrations broke out in Iran after the Shah signed a 1964 SOFA with the United States, even though only a few hundred U.S. military advisers were involved.
"National sovereignty is the key issue," Allawi said. "If U.S. troops stay for a finite period, then leave, that's fine. But the Bush administration seems to have something else in mind. People are not sure how this will be wound down or if it will be wound down."
Allawi's comments reminded me of many conversations I've had with Iraqi officials and ordinary Iraqis. Shiite Iraqis - the majority, who hated Saddam and were our nominal allies - always gave me the same message: Please stabilize the country and then go home.
When al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni militias were attacking Shiites, the latter wanted U.S. protection. When Shiite militias took revenge on Sunni civilians, the Sunni community - which had been favored by Saddam - reversed its position and looked to U.S. troops for protection.
Now, as Iraqi security has improved, the Shiite majority feels freer to think about a U.S. troop exit. And Prime Minister Maliki, buoyed by his "success" in routing radical militias from Basra, feels readier to challenge his American backers.
Moreover, Maliki, looking ahead to provincial elections in several months, must pay attention to rising popular nationalist feelings. Most important, he must get a two-thirds vote in his parliament to get the SOFA enacted.
All this might give Democrats the impression that Maliki is giving them cover to demand a full U.S. withdrawal ASAP. After all, if Iraqis want us out, why should we stay?
But Barack Obama should pay attention to the context surrounding Maliki's pronouncements. The Iraqi prime minister knows his impulsive push into Basra would have met disaster had he not been rescued by U.S. air power. Iraqi forces are still not ready for prime time.
Maliki wants U.S. troops to remain for now, and he wants a SOFA. But he wants an accord that treats Iraq like a real country, where U.S. military and civilian officials don't have free reign - and can't stay forever.
In the end, there will probably be a deal that puts U.S. contractors under Iraqi law, Iraqi prisoners under Iraqi control, and gives Iraq far more control over what U.S. forces do, and for how long.
Ryan Crocker, the astute U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, acknowledged Iraqi sensitivities when he said last week: "There isn't going to be an agreement that infringes on Iraqi sovereignty." He added that the deal "isn't going to be forever."
So let's be glad that progress has been made and Iraqis feel confident enough to demand equality. The sooner they can take charge, the sooner U.S. troops will come home.