(RFE/RL) -- Iraq's presidential council has approved a security pact with the United States -- the Status of Forces Agreement, or SOFA -- which calls for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.
Washington hailed the Iraqi decision. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that U.S. President George W. Bush's administration is pleased with the approval of the security agreement and an accompanying strategic framework agreement, calling the two pacts "landmark agreements that will guide our relationships with Iraq, help solidify Iraq's democratic gains that they've made over the past few years, affirm Iraq's sovereignty, and put its relations with the United States on a strong footing."
The Iraqi presidential council's secretary, Nasir al-Ani, said in Baghdad that the council did not change any of the language in the draft of the Status Of Forces Agreement approved by parliament.
The agreement lays out the rights and responsibilities of U.S. forces in Iraq once the UN mandate for their presence in the country expires at the end of this year.
It calls for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, and for U.S. troops to pull out of populated areas in Iraq by the end of June 2009.
The controversial security pact was approved by Iraq's parliament in November after months of wrangling. But it still required the approval of the presidential council -- a body made up of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, and two vice presidents, a Shi'ite and a Sunni Arab.
The blessing given on December 4 means the agreement has cleared its final hurdle in terms of government or legislative approval.
Still, as part of the political bargaining that led up to parliament's approval in November, the Iraqi government agreed to demands to conduct a public referendum on SOFA no later than July 30.
Perino says that regardless of the outcome of that referendum, the United States is prepared to pull troops out of Iraq -- as long as progress on security and democracy can be consolidated there.
"I think that the fact that their representative leadership has signed this agreement today [shows] that they recognize that they are going to continue to need our help for the next little while," Perino said. "But we have a path now to help our troops get home. And we are already bringing troops home, and we're going to be able to continue to do that as long as we solidify the gains that we've made."
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council, says President Bush called the Iraqi president on December 4 to thank him for his personal leadership in securing passage of SOFA.
Johndroe says Bush also called Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to thank him for his help in reaching the accord.