What does worry U.S. officials is the level of Iranian involvement in the south. And the more unstable the region is, the more opportunities for Iran to meddle. "Because the Shia are essentially at war with one another, it gives the Iranians opportunities to build influence among all sides," says Robert Grenier, the cia's former Iraq mission manager and now managing director at Kroll Inc. And that is a key concern, a senior military official says. "That's what really worries us."
But military officials point to some small shifts in Iran's behavior. "It's not definite, but there are hopeful signs" of Iran's following through on its pledge earlier this summer to cease militia aid, says the official. "There have been interims of lower [explosively formed projectiles, the most deadly form of roadside bomb in the country today] and fewer indirect fire attacks." What's more, the official adds, the United States "has taken some small steps as well," releasing two Iranians captured and accused of being members of the elite Iranian Quds force earlier this year.
4. A big-oil town
Throughout this war, Kurdish-run northern Iraq has been largely removed from the convulsive chaos besetting the rest of the country. But the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk—generally described as a powder keg or a time bomb, take your pick—threatens that relative calm. The Kurds want control of the city, and a referendum, supposedly by year's end, was meant to determine its fate. But like so much on the country's political plate, that vote has been delayed. In the meantime, Kurdish leaders have been moving Kurdish families—many forced out during Saddam's efforts to Arabize the city—and displacing Sunnis to make sure they have the votes to win the referendum, whenever it is held.
U.S. military officials are urging the Kurdish leaders to act carefully. Turkey has threatened to come across the border to strike against separatist terrorists taking refuge in Iraq, though that's looking less likely as snow curtails travel through mountain passes. There is concern, too, that "the Kurds will overreach and drive a portion of the Sunni population into the waiting arms of the Baathist resistance and al Qaeda as defenders of last resort," says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. "We'd advise our Kurdish friends to take that into consideration as they feel their way forward politically."
Some of the best news of the year in Iraq has been the teaming up of Sunni sheiks and local so-called security volunteers with U.S. forces to battle the Sunni terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq. The so-called Sunni Awakening has transformed the situation in once deadly Anbar province, as well as in other Sunni strongholds. That's a positive development, but analysts are quick to point out that these may be fair-weather friends only so long as the United States provides a counterbalance to the Shiite-dominated government. So far, the Iraqi government is in no hurry to bring Sunni contingents—now being paid by the U.S. military—into the ranks of the official security forces.
This fact has not stopped the U.S. military from pressing hard to try to speed up the process by which Sunnis are being brought into the security forces, however—the last thing American officials want is to disappoint the job expectations of armed former Sunni insurgents who could again turn on U.S. and government forces. In the meantime, the U.S. military will be concentrating on job creation programs to move Sunnis into paid work in the months ahead.
But there remain plenty of doubts about the current government's ability to put aside its sectarian leanings, and U.S. officials are losing hope for a government of national unity. Today, the operative word is accommodation, not reconciliation. "It's not like they're going to be reconciled—it's just that they have to learn how not to kill each other," says James Miller of the Center for New American Security in Washington. And so officials are thinking locally. This bottom-up approach means that U.S. forces will continue to work closely with provincial governments and monitor to what extent they can establish and maintain order in their areas—and operate in a way, adds Miller, that there's not a great deal of friction between them.