A recent wave of violence across Iraq is drawing more attention to the impending decrease in U.S. forces in that country. At least 55 people have been killed in several attacks over a three-day period. Starting September 1, the U.S. military will reduce its troop levels to 50,000, as U.S. forces shift their focus to training and counter-insurgency efforts. While U.S. and Iraqi officials insist Iraq's security forces are sufficient, others say the country's political instability is a key challenge to quelling the insurgency.
Flames and smoke race skyward after one of three explosions in the southern Iraqi city of Basra August 7
Although sectarian violence has dropped dramatically in recent years, bombing and suicide attacks still occur on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, the failure of March elections to produce a coalition government is raising concerns about Iraq's ability to stop the violence.
Despite those concerns, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, says Iraqi security forces are ready to assume greater responsibility. "I think we'll see some first steps toward forming a government by One September, but our numbers are not linked to that formation of the government. Our numbers are linked to the capacity that the Iraqis - of the Iraqi security forces being able to sustain stability. And I think they are moving toward that capacity," he said.
At a recent news conference in Iraq, an Iraqi army commander echoed General Odierno's confidence. "Our security forces are well-prepared and will be responsible for keeping security in the country. We are fully prepared to take all the responsibilities from the U.S. forces during this phase," said Lt. Gen. Ali Ghaidan.
General Odierno says the 50,000 U.S. troops that will remain in Iraq represent what he calls a "very significant presence."
But others say the uncertainty of Iraq's future government is a far greater concern. Helle Dale, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, says too much emphasis has been placed on what the September 1 deadline means regarding U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
"One of the the things it was supposed to achieve was to make the Iraqis stand on their own feet. To make the Iraqis form a government. To put pressure on Iraq to get its act together, and that's not happening," she said.
Dale says if Iraq fails to establish a coalition government soon, the burden of implementing a counter-insurgency strategy, and law and order, may rest with Iraq's military commanders. "They're in charge of the cities, they're in charge of much of the country. But I think the leadership would almost have to come from them - in order to deal with insurgents on the ground," he said.
On August 4, the United Nations Security Council called on Iraq's recently-elected legislature to form a government quickly.
The U.N. top's diplomat in Iraq, Ad Melkert, says delays are contributing to uncertainty, which could be exploited by those opposed to democracy in Iraq.