The United States declared the end of its combat mission in Iraq in August and is to withdraw its remaining troops by the end of 2011. But the security problems plaguing the nation nearly eight years after the U.S.-led invasion show no sign of ending soon, calling into question what the U.S. will do.
Deadlines are not something Iraq or the United States have been very good at meeting. What was hailed as the end to the U.S. combat mission has been followed by continued U.S. military action, under the nominal command of Iraqi forces.
Even the plan to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities by June 2009 was not implemented. American troops were at key positions in March during elections for parliament.
So what happens at the end of 2011, when all U.S. troops are set to go? Charles Dunne is a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
"A lot is going to depend on the United States-Iraq defense relationship going forward," said Dunne. "The big question here is how many troops is the United States going to leave in Iraq after the end of 2011."
Dunne says there have been no formal talks about a follow-up to the security agreement on an end to the U.S. presence as well as the training of Iraqi soldiers for taking complete control.
Some in the U.S. military believe the Iraqis are ready to stand up as the U.S. stands down, to paraphrase a favorite line of former President George W. Bush.
Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan , spokesman for U.S. Forces-Iraq, says Iraqi forces have maintained security, in recent months especially.
"From the election day through this period of government formation, more than eight months, providing security, manning their posts, and never wavering, even though their chain of command was up to a caretaker government," said Buchanan.
Charles Dunne thinks that does not tell the whole story, in particular, the role of the Sons of Iraq. Its members belong to the Sunni minority that renounced the insurgency to help the U.S.
"About half of these have been taken into government security positions," he said. "That leaves about another 49,000 out there, not being given permanent jobs, and could be a future source of al-Qaida-in-Iraq recruiting.
There is also the issue of the Kurds, ethnically distinct from the Arab majority. In the north, they have enjoyed relative autonomy through much of the chaos.
But recent talk of self-determination could be a time bomb, especially since land separating Kurdistan from the mainly Arab south is in dispute, as is the oil rich city of Kirkuk.
Daniel Serwer of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies believes this is the biggest threat to Iraqi stability.
"I think we need to worry about making sure that, by the end of 2011, there is a process in motion that will resolve the Arab-Kurdish problems peacefully," he said.
But it is far from certain that the Iraqi government will be able to tackle this issue and others, at least right away.
The political haggling since the elections has left whatever government emerges with a huge backlog of issues. While many suggest an inclusive government is ideal, bringing rivals together may pose problems.
"If you have a grab-bag government, with everybody represented, people have to be picked who can work effectively, who can, in effect, act as technocrats," said Dunne. "And I think this is going to be a very tall order."
As the United States steers its mission away from the military and toward the diplomatic, it faces other challenges.
Followers of Moqtada al Sadr, the Iranian-influenced, anti-U.S. cleric, are likely to be players in a new government. Al Sadr also is not fond of current Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki.
Some analysts say dealing with the Sadrists, however distasteful, is key to the diplomatic transition and a more stable Iraq.
"I think we stand some chance of getting them to be a somewhat more moderate force than they are today. And we need to wean them frankly, from Tehran. And that can only be done by talking to them, not holding them at a distance."
Serwer is concerned that, as the military mission winds down, Americans have begun to forget about Iraq.
"Iraq is inherently a very important country," he said. "It is important because of where it is. It is important because of the role it has played in world history. It is important because of the oil it has, and because of the neighbors it has."
But he says forgetting Iraq is a mistake America may not be able to make at the end of 2011.
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