U.S. forces pulled out of large cities in Iraq June 30, meeting the first major deadline of a security pact which calls for the final withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of 2011. Iraqis are now officially in charge of security, with the U.S. assuming an increasingly advisory role. VOA spoke with experts about the challenges ahead for Iraq, and their concerns for the immediate future.
As Iraqis celebrated a key date in their nation's quest for true sovereignty - another deadly car bombing served as a reminder of the terror that can frequently interrupt daily life.
U.S. combat troops no longer mingle with Iraq's urban dwellers, as they did for six years.
Iraqi security forces 'doing well'
Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington says Iraqi security forces have done well in recent operations in which they have taken the lead from U.S. troops.
"The Iraqis are very good on the tactics on the ground, of cordoning off an area, storming a building," O'Hanlon said. "But processing the intelligence information fast enough, reacting quickly enough - they can still use some help there as well."
Some 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country but outside the cities after handing over 150 former U.S. bases.
Many had predicted new attacks but Jim Phillips of Washington's Heritage Foundation says Iraqi security forces are winning the battle. He says Iraq's government must soothe political tensions among various factions which he says insurgents hope to use to foment anger.
"As long as the Iraqi government continues to reach out to Sunni Arab leaders, and to support the former insurgents in the Awakening Movement and the Sons of Iraq militia, that will keep the insurgency from growing again. But if the political progress slides backwards, then there could be a problem," Phillips said.
Close eye on progress
Phillips says Washington will keep a close eye on that political progress, especially the actions of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
"Prime Minister Maliki is very popular now," he said. "It's important that he not overplay his hand, and alienate some of the Arab Sunni forces."
U.S. soldiers remain to advise Iraqi forces in the cities and conduct operations elsewhere.
"The big drawdown is in 2010. And that's also a moment of political stress in Iraq, because that's when you have elections on January 30th of the year. So I think the next six months should be an evolutionary, gradual process, and I expect them to go pretty well," O'Hanlon said. "I'm actually a little more concerned about the following 6 months to start 2010."
The U.S.-Iraqi security agreement calls for all American combat troops to leave Iraq by September 2010 with all others gone the next year.