BAGHDAD—In late October, the U.S. military quietly returned control of the once deadly Wasit province to the Iraqi government. Lost in an avalanche of news about the U.S. presidential election, the small ceremony in the capital city of Kut marked an important step toward the conclusion of the war in Iraq. Wasit, which is south of Baghdad and shares a 125-mile border with neighboring Iran, was the 13th of Iraq's 18 provinces to be returned to Iraq's control. The handover comes amid a sharp decline in violence. No Americans have died in Wasit so far this year.
U.S. soldiers will likely remain in Wasit for a while, but their exact role is just one of the questions that Barack Obama will face after he takes office in January. The broader challenge is what to do with the 140,000 U.S. troops still on the ground in Iraq. While Obama says he stands by his campaign promise to withdraw troops within 16 months, the Iraqis are moving forward with a timetable of their own—the end of 2011. Meanwhile, a withdrawal is already underway in certain areas. Fallujah and Ramadi, for instance, once the deadliest cities in the world, are now nearly empty of U.S. forces, as Iraqis have taken responsibility for daily security.
"Less fragile." What's less clear, American commanders here say, is whether the gains in security are solid enough to weather the coming withdrawal of U.S. forces from more major cities, as well as the upcoming provincial elections and the integration of thousands of Sunni irregulars into the national security forces. "Things here are less fragile than they were six months ago, but there is still a concern that if you move too quickly, that trends can reverse," says Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq. "As security gets better, we won't be in the cities, we won't be doing independent operations, but we will be working alongside Iraqi security forces."
One central component of the Iraqi security forces is the 100,000-strong so-called Sons of Iraq. Established as a paramilitary force to improve neighborhood security and to employ disenfranchised mainly Sunni Iraqis, the SOI is widely credited by the Americans with helping to reduce violence. Most of the Sons of Iraq are paid about $300 per month by the U.S. military to man local checkpoints. But the Shiite-led government regards many of them as criminals or terrorists and has only grudgingly accepted the idea that keeping them on the payroll is easier than fighting them in the streets. Baghdad has agreed to try to find some kind of work for most SOI members and to formally integrate 20 percent of them into the police or national army.
But incorporating these irregular forces into the official security apparatus won't be easy. First, the government must show it is serious about keeping its SOI allies. General Austin says he's optimistic. "The Maliki government understands that it's important for people to have respectable jobs and to be able to feed their families," he says. "So far, so good."
A second concern is how sincere SOI members are about assisting in security. Critics of the program worry that a regular paycheck won't be enough. They argue that the SOI are simply Sunni militias lying low and biding their time for a later battle with the ruling Shiite government. But merely ending the program and turning the men back out on the streets—where the insurgents could pay their salaries—isn't an option either. "If we don't deal with the Sons of Iraq, then they will deal with us with IEDs or otherwise," says one senior U.S. combat commander.
This month in Baghdad, tens of thousands of SOI members stopped receiving paychecks from the Americans and began to receive them from Baghdad instead. It's a process being watched closely by the SOI in other areas. Diyala province is next in line to transition to SOI funding. "Many of these men have very serious criminal pasts, but we are trying to send the message that the government in Baghdad is open to everyone who renounces violence," says Hazim Muhammad Salman, the central government's representative in Diyala, who spends much of his time these days on issues dealing with the SOI. Aside from violence, he says there is concern about the SOI beginning to organize themselves politically for the coming elections. "These men have guns and stand around neighborhoods. That's power, and it's not surprising that they will try to maintain that power after the elections."
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.