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Tuesday Marks Formal End of US Combat Mission in Iraq

The United States on Tuesday, August 31 at a formal ceremony in Baghdad will end its combat mission in Iraq and complete the U.S. military's transition to an advisory and training role in support of Iraqi forces. That effort is to continue until the end of next year, but there are significant questions about what happens after that.

U.S. combat units recently rolled out of Iraq, bringing the number of U.S. forces below 50,000. The remaining troops are what the military calls advise and assist brigades. Their primary mission -- to help Iraqi forces become more capable of providing sophisticated security.

The outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, says the Iraqis are ready, but there will still be plenty of U.S. troops available, not only for training, but also to help with emergencies. "We still have capability on the ground that if we have to and the Iraqis want us to, we can help them," he said.

General Odierno says the Iraqis have to improve their counterterrorism capability by the end of next year, although he concedes they will not be fully prepared even by that time.

Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General James Dubik agrees. General Dubik was in charge of training Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008. "It's in our U.S. strategic best interest to have an Iraq that's stable," he said, "to have an Iraq that is more and more democratic and representative. And it's in our best interest to have an Iraq that is friendly to the United States and western allies."

Michael O'Hanlon at the Brookings Institution says the Iraqis' needs will extend beyond the end of next year, when the bilateral security agreement says all U.S. troops should leave. "The militaries on both sides, I believe, would favor a continuation of this professional relationship on some level," he stated.

O'Hanlon says in addition to specialty training, the U.S. presence can help prevent ethnic and sectarian violence. "Given the investment on both sides, given the difficult past that we've all been through together, why do we want to run the risk of a rushed departure when, in fact, it's probably not the most prudent thing," he reasoned.

But General Dubik says any request for U.S. troops to stay beyond 2011 must come from Iraqi leaders. And he and other experts note that can't happen until Iraq forms a new government. "The Iraqi government will have to form. They'll have to recognize that our legal standing for being in Iraq ends in 2011, and should they want our help they'll have to ask and the governments will have to negotiate some satisfactory arrangement," he stated.

As U.S. combat troops exit and bomb blasts ring out across the country, Iraqi leaders face even more pressure to form a new government -- some five months after the elections. For those feuding politicians, Tuesday's formal handover will be yet another reminder that their country's future is in their hands.