CNN reports on today’s protest in Iraq against the SOFA agreement proposed by Prime Minister Maliki :

Iraqis outraged by a proposed security pact between Iraq and the United States staged an angry but peaceful protest against the deal Friday.

Thousands of people — most of whom are backers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — streamed into Baghdad’s Firdous Square waving Iraqi flags, hoisting posters with portraits of the cleric and carrying signs scorning the agreement.

Protesters at one point set fire to U.S. flags and an effigy of President Bush, but the rally was well-organized and peaceful with no evidence of fighting or arrests. People dispersed amicably after the 2½-hour event.

Think about that.  In a country ruled by violence both before and after the U.S. invasion, a political faction held a massive demonstration in the capital against a key policy of the government… and then everyone went home peacefully.  Of course, that situation is by no means guaranteed to last, as the New York Times hints today in its coverage of the legislative debate over the agreement:

When cornered on the stairways and balconies of the Iraqi Parliament building in the Green Zone, many of those who are threatening to vote against ratification openly admit that they approve of its terms.

To be clear, it is not the treaty that is the problem,” said Aala Maki, a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni party that has suggested it might not vote for approval. “What will be built on the treaty, that is the problem.”

Other than the followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who reject any agreement in principle (and who continue to bang their hands on their desks in Parliament when it is being discussed), most lawmakers consider the pact at least satisfactory, if not ideal.

But the Sunnis, and others, are worried that the agreement will leave too much power to Mr. Maliki’s government, given that only two years ago elements of the government-run Iraqi police force were functionally little more than Shiite death squads.

The major Sunni parties, after several days of mixed messages, have largely come together and demanded a series of guarantees from the government and the Americans in return for their support. . . .

. . . Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker, said members of the Kurdish coalition were privately mulling whether to draw up their own list of demands.

Everybody is afraid of Maliki,” Mr. Othman said. “Nobody is afraid of the agreement.”

Truth be told, this is the Sadrists’ real objection, too — since part of Maliki’s strongman ambitions is using the remaining U.S. presence to wear down their ability to oppose him (just as he’s done for the past year), even an orderly, gradual withdrawal is unsatisfactory to the Sadrists.  Thus they are forced to insist that a SOFA with a hard withdrawal deadline is in fact a puppet’s capitulation, that Obama is every bit the imperialist Bush/Cheney were, and so on.

For the moment, though, the debate is taking place in the political realm rather than on the streets, and that has to count as progress.  If Maliki has the sense and capacity to cut political deals with the Sunnis and Kurds to ensure broad support for the pact rather than steamroll it through by a narrow majority, that would be even more encouraging (though still transient).  We’ll know more on Monday, when the agreement is due to be voted on.