This week marks the sixth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that deposed Saddam Hussein and established a fledgling democracy, but also unleashed political, ethnic and sectarian tensions that caused years of devastating violence. As the anniversary passes, Iraq seems to be emerging from the worst of the bloodshed, and U.S. troops are preparing to leave, but some experts caution against declaring victory just yet.
These days, nearly all the headlines coming out of Iraq are positive, military, police and civilian casualties all down, the economy improving, preparations for another round of elections proceeding well, and U.S. troops preparing to scale back their role and fully withdraw within three years.
"We are close to sustainable security, but we're not there yet," said Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the number two U.S. commander in Iraq. He says U.S. troops will continue to train Iraqi forces, and provide them with air support and other capabilities they don't have. But the emphasis now is on long-term security provided by the Iraqis themselves.
"I think sustainable security looks a lot like the Iraqi security forces having the capability and the capacity to do this for themselves in the future. We will be here to mentor them, to provide them enablers where required, and so yes, I am confident that we can get the job done," he said.
In fact, that is what President Obama ordered last month when he announced that U.S. combat troops will leave Iraq by August of next year, to be followed by a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of the following year. The president said by then, U.S. goals in Iraq should have been achieved.
"This strategy is grounded in a clear and achievable goal shared by the Iraqi people and the American people: an Iraq that is sovereign, stable, and self-reliant," he said.
There has been a lot of progress in Iraq during the last two years, due mainly to the surge of U.S. forces, a new counterinsurgency approach and improvements in Iraq's government and security forces. But some analysts, including former State Department official Wayne White, now of the Middle East Institute, say it is too soon to declare victory, and the road out of Iraq may be as difficult as the war's early years were.
"There are a tremendous amount of unknowns," he said. "And too many people are simply acting as if it's over or we won or are successful, when we've got a lot of bridges to cross. I see trouble. In question is to what degree will we see trouble. Will we see violence that is so significant that it can not be contained by national police and Iraqi army forces, and requires U.S. intervention?"
White is not confident that Iraq's security forces will be ready to take full responsibility for their country's security in the coming years.
"The mistake that people should not make is putting too much emphasis on the proficiency of Iraqi security forces. We did that, you know, back in '05, '06 and it got us nowhere," he said.
But another analyst believes the president's plan has a good chance of working.
"The good news is that the war is coming to an end. The kind of grassroots, bottom-up violence that we saw throughout '03, '04, '05, '06, '07, really has largely ended," said Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.
O'Hanlon cautions against being too optimistic. But he also says another year-and-a-half of help from U.S. combat forces, and a further year-and-a-half with U.S. trainers and support troops, should give the Iraqis enough time to solve their remaining problems, including the growing Arab-Kurd dispute in the north and ongoing attacks by militant groups.
"I think there's a good chance, although I would want to keep, first of all, an open mind about a couple of things, starting with the fact that I'm very glad that after 18 more months we will still have 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and the concept of a gradual withdrawal will continue to be our guiding philosophy," he said.
Pentagon officials are quick to say the progress in Iraq is still "fragile," although less fragile than a year ago. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says there are still problems to solve, and the "roots of democracy" in Iraq are still "relatively shallow." But he said Wednesday that after what he called six "difficult and painful" years, Iraqis can look forward to a better future.
"I believe that the Iraqi people today, with all that pain in the past, have a future that they have probably never had before. The prospects seem to get better every day that the Iraqis will solve these problems politically and not with guns. And that's a much different kind of life," Gates said.
Secretary Gates says Iraqis elect their own government, their leaders respect the law, and the country has a chance for strong economic growth. As Iraq enters its seventh year of war, he predicted the country will emerge much better off by the time U.S. troops finish their scheduled withdrawal at the end of 2011, nearly nine years after they arrived.