Is Iraq Ready for the U.S. Military to Start Leaving?

Violence is down, yes, but a fragile Iraqi government faces major tests in the coming months.

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Several U.S. military commanders report the stirrings of SOI-affiliated political groups organizing ahead of the provincial elections, scheduled for January. Yet the extent of that political maneuvering is unclear since most of the SOI groups were established through sheiks, tribal leaders, and other power brokers who are already part of the political hierarchy. Some U.S. intelligence officers suggest that the most serious candidates for provincial posts will most likely emerge only days before the vote, making the results difficult to anticipate.

But whatever the outcome, the January 31 votes will be a critical test for security gains. Critics fear it could trigger a return to violence if the results are contested or the legitimacy of the vote count is called into question. Others say it may give greater legitimacy to the government, often seen as unrepresentative by many voters. "Our job is to sustain the security gains and buy the government the time to hold those elections that are so important to the future," Austin says. That's no small task for a country where the capital city still receives only a few hours of power per day. After more than five years of war, meanwhile, nearly 1 in 5 Iraqis is a refugee inside or outside the country.

Once elected, the new provincial governments will be responsible for reconstruction efforts and securing resources from Baghdad. American military commanders are routinely referring requests for reconstruction aid to the government in Baghdad. Last month in Ramadi, when a local police captain complained about a shipment of defective weapons, the American officer sitting on his couch put it this way: "You know the number for the Ministry of the Interior, don't you? Call them." In Diyala province, which is still under American control, the military has likewise shifted gears from providing security to fostering stability. "My first priority is improving governance. The second is improving the economy," says Col. Burt Thompson, in command of U.S. forces in the once volatile eastern province. "Security is still a concern, but we're already in overwatch on that front. The Iraqis will have to deal with a certain level of violence that is bound to remain at low levels for the near future."

Shifting focus. With violence down in Iraq, policymakers in Washington are shifting their attention away from the conflict here. "The fight in Iraq has lost its ire for a lot of al Qaeda adherents," CIA Director Michael Hayden said during a recent speech in Washington, citing a "significant" reduction in the number of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq from countries like Iran and Syria. As for Al Qaeda in Iraq, Hayden said that group is "on the verge of strategic defeat."

The northern city of Mosul, shattered by years of ceaseless violence, is the site of the most recent flare-up with insurgents. American commanders blame the porous border with Syria, where some foreign fighters are trickling in. Securing Iraq's borders, near Mosul, as well as in provinces like Diyala and Wasit, is the new focus for Iraqi and U.S. forces. Hundreds of military advisers have been working with the Iraqi forces to monitor border crossings and fortify defenses. An earthen berm is being expanded along the border with Syria, for instance, while a string of border outposts are being built and upgraded along the border with Iran. This last-minute good-fences-make-good-neighbors strategy could help stabilize Iraq. But Baghdad still has a long way to go toward putting its own house in order if more U.S. forces are going to be able to head home soon.

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