3. Kirkuk. Call it a powder keg or ticking time bomb—those are the more popular adjectives among U.S. military officials. Either way, the mood of this northern Iraqi city and the troops who operate in it is "tense, frankly," says Hertling.
That's because the city has been waiting for years now for the vote that will determine who controls it. Such an election would be the first in four years. But Iraqi lawmakers adjourned for the summer without passing vital laws that will set the rules for campaigning, including matters such as the percentage of women who must appear on the ballot.
Now, it appears that the elections, originally scheduled for October, may be delayed until next year. Iraq's Kurds want the city to become part of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region, which would give Kurdish leaders the oil resources to seek independence at some future time. But until there's an election, the question of who controls oil-rich Kirkuk—an explosive issue in an ethnically diverse city—remains unresolved.
4. Sadr. U.S. military officials consistently say that firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's declaration of a cease-fire may be one of the most underestimated factors in the downturn in violence in Iraq last year. Iraq had also been relatively quiet early this year—until Sadr mobilized his militia in March. By April, attacks in Baghdad had jumped from just over a dozen to some 100 per day, and the number of American soldiers killed reached the highest levels in seven months.
Many argue that the Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, is increasingly splintered, and that the Iraqi Army's offensive in the southern city of Basra last spring demonstrated Sadr's increasing irrelevance.
But some U.S. military officials maintain that he remains a considerable force, both militarily and politically. And there remain, too, concerns about the support that Sadr receives from Iran, according to U.S. officials. General Austin said last month that as security improved Shiite strongholds such as Basra and Sadr City, he watched leaders of Mahdi Army special groups leave the country. "We think that they went to Iran for additional training and to be resourced," he added.
That raises the question of the effects on violence levels in the country should those leaders return, which is a distinct possibility. Says Austin, "We expect that those leaders will try to come back at some point in the future."