Can Obama Begin Withdrawing U.S. Troops From Iraq Without Reversing Progress?

Violence has been declining steadily, but a number of factors could still easily reverse the trend.

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Barack Obama owes much of his political success to his early and vocal opposition to the war in Iraq, campaigning on the promise of a timeline for U.S. troops to leave the country. Two weeks after his election, the Iraqis themselves signed an agreement with the outgoing Bush administration requiring that all troops leave Iraqi cities by next year and the country by 2012.

Obama, for his part, stands by his call for a 16-month timetable. Still, Obama's position offers considerable wiggle room, allowing for a continued presence based on advice from military commanders. Britain, the largest non-U.S. force remaining in the country with 4,000 soldiers, will likely remove all but a few hundred over the next 12 months.

Commanders are hoping the war will continue to wind down, but there are a number of factors that could reverse the recent progress. For one thing, the sectarian fissures between Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni communities that plunged the nation into chaos between 2005 and 2007 still linger just below the surface and could erupt again with a startling and deadly ferocity.

There are a host of outstanding issues that could trigger a return to sectarian bloodletting, including the disposition of the disputed northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the fate of a cease-fire between the Iraqi and American militaries and a Shiite militia controlled by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the future role for the unofficial Sunni militia called the Awakening. Beyond those questions, there are the upcoming elections, which have the potential—depending on the results—to further alienate the Sunni minority from the Shiite-dominated government.

Beyond the sectarian strife, there is fierce competition within the larger religious groups. Two of the country's largest and most powerful Shiite groups—the nominally secular, though Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army and several criminal militias, many loyal to Sadr—fought a pitched battle over the southern port city of Basra last spring and the result, experts say, was largely a stalemate. The Iraqi Army eventually regained control of the city when militants stopped fighting, but only after Iraqi regulars had turned and fled during battle, American air power was called in, and Iran aided in brokering a de facto truce.

President Bush has been quick to tout the recent reduction in violence country-wide, saying that "a new era is dawning for Iraq." Such declarations have, of course, been made prematurely before, mostly notably Bush's "mission accomplished" banner on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003.

Still, even a true victory could have unexpected consequences. The war hardened a generation of local militias and foreign terrorists that could look for other venues in which to use their new skills. CIA Director Michael Hayden recently warned of what he called "bleed-out." Foreign terrorist fighters "leave Iraq with hopes of building al Qaeda capacity elsewhere—and that might be Afghanistan or Lebanon, on the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, just to name a few examples," he said last month. "We even see some Iraq veterans involved in planning attacks in the West, in Europe, and in the United States."

It is difficult to appreciate how much of Iraq itself has been destroyed by the war and subsequent looting, which only compounded the legacy of years of U.N. sanctions and neglect under Saddam Hussein's rule. Whatever the cause, Iraq's so-called human development indicators as compiled this year by the World Bank are among lowest in the Middle East: 37 percent of the population is unemployed and women's participation in the nonagricultural sector hovers around 14 percent.

Basic services are still uneven and sporadic at best. The capital of Baghdad receives between six and eight hours of electricity per day. In other parts of the country, cities and towns receive water and power directly from neighboring Iran because their own government cannot provide it. And numerous buildings in cities and towns across the country have been heavily damaged by the years of fighting. "One of the most surprising things about Iraq has been the amount of devastation, both from the war and the years of sanctions—and that's a long-term effort that their government is going to have to continue pursuing even after we leave," Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the Marine commander of Anbar province, said in an interview this fall.