As Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. forces in Iraq, prepared to hand over the reins of command to Gen. Raymond Odierno this week, he cautioned that recent progress in the country remains quite fragile and "not yet self-sustaining"—sentiments echoed in the halls of the Pentagon as well.
"I don't like to use words like victory or defeat," said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who made a surprise visit to Baghdad this week. "In fact, I am a realist, not an optimist or a pessimist. And the reality is that there has been significant progress but there are still serious challenges."
To that end, U.S. defense officials will be keeping a close eye on four key factors that continue to concern them greatly in Iraq—and that will help them gauge how things are going post-surge in the months to come.
1. Local Militias. The rise of the local militias known as Sons of Iraq—and paid by the U.S. government—has been touted as a major reason for the decline in violence throughout the country. They are largely composed of Sunni citizens, who currently operate under what can be charitably described as the watchful—some would say deeply suspicious—eye of the Shiite-dominated government.
U.S. forces have been working hard to integrate them into the Iraqi police and Army. It was, in fact, one of Petraeus' big goals when he arrived in Iraq last year.
But these efforts have been slow going and consistently blocked, U.S. military officials say, by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Shiite members of parliament. Sometimes, this opposition has taken the form of stalling. At other times, it has been more overt.
Recently, the government said that it would allow only 20 percent of the Sons of Iraq ranks to be absorbed into the police and Army. "The state cannot accept the Awakening," the name for rise of the Sunni militias allied with U.S. forces, according to one leading Shiite member of parliament. "Their days are numbered," he added last month.
Most alarmingly, there have also been reports that Sons of Iraq leaders have been targeted. Several have been arrested. Next month, the Awakening movement will undergo another major strain as U.S. forces plan to reduce their ranks by nearly 40 percent, from more than 32,000 to less than 18,000. The goal is to get most of them into job-training programs, where they can learn to be electricians, bricklayers, and carpenters, for example.
But the threat of continued targeting of Sons of Iraq—by the Iraqi government—is of deep concern to U.S. officials, particularly because many were formerly allied with other insurgent groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq. "If this is not handled properly, we could have a security issue," said Brig. Gen. David Perkins, the senior military spokesman in Iraq, last month. "You don't want to give anybody a reason to turn back to al Qaeda."
2. Decline of U.S. Forces. The surge is now over, and the U.S. military plans to pull an additional 8,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq early next year. That will bring the total number of U.S. forces in the country to around 138,000, down from a peak of 170,000. But with progress as fragile as it is, U.S. officials point out, the question becomes who will fill in for the troops should violence reignite.
Gates has pointed to the growing abilities of Iraqi troops. But U.S. officials caution, too, that putting Iraqi security forces in charge too soon would be a mistake. "I'm not sure that pushing them forward is the right thing that we want to do. We tried that once before and found that that didn't work," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, referring to the pre-2007 strategy that emphasized quickly handing off security responsibilities to Iraqi forces and keeping U.S. forces on larger bases.
Last month, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told reporters that he has "about seven different [insurgent] organizations" that he's fighting in his area. He adds that none of the four provinces in his area of operations "are at an acceptable level of security, in my opinion." And, for this reason, he added, U.S. forces should not yet turn over responsibility in these areas to the Iraqi Army.
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."