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Violence in Iraq spikes. Are US security interests in jeopardy?

A recent rise in civilian deaths and injuries in Iraq is cause for concern, but Pentagon personnel say Iraqi security forces are proving to be 'very capable' in the year since US troops departed.

By Anna MulrineStaff writer / December 21, 2012

Security personnel inspect the site of a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, 155 miles north of Baghdad, in November.

Ako Rasheed/Reuters

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Washington

Violence in Iraq from July to October hit its highest level in two years, a discouraging sign that – one year after the last US military vehicles exited the country – prompts questions about whether the situation on the ground in Iraq jeopardizes America's national security interests.

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The question is one that defense analysts and Pentagon personnel are tracking, with particular attention to the response of US-trained Iraqi security forces to the rising numbers of deaths and injuries of civilians. So far, the assessment of both is guardedly positive.

“The levels of violence there are still extremely high – and lethal,” says Nora Bensahel, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who notes that more people are dying in Iraq today than in Afghanistan, where America’s war is ongoing.

That said, “there were people who argued that the moment the last US troops left the country it would disintegrate into civil wars and the Iraqi security forces wouldn’t be able to stand,” adds Ms. Bensahel, who co-wrote a report released by CNAS this week, "Revitalizing the Partnership: The United States and Iraq a Year after Withdrawal." “That hasn’t happened yet. It’s clear that the [Iraqi] security forces were strong enough to be able to hold together and maintain certain levels of capabilities.” 

The violence in Iraq is marked by considerable brutality, including sectarian killing. From July to October 2012, 854 civilians were killed and 1,640 were wounded. 

“The Iraqi security forces are continuing to demonstrate themselves to be very capable in handling their country’s security,” says Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman. “Obviously, today we no longer have a real military footprint inside the country that would make us an authority on the actual security situation there.”

Between 200 and 300 US military personnel remain on the ground in Iraq, training the Iraqi military and overseeing foreign military sales. “It’s more classroom stuff, dealing at the higher levels – it’s certainly not range training or basic combat. Obviously we’ve gotten beyond that,” says Speaks.

Those who have been on the ground recently hold a similar view. Lt. Col. Mark Cheadle was in Baghdad for four months after the official end of the war. “I would have to say things have gone as expected. I wouldn’t say their progress is worse than expected.”

Still, “it’s not what we would necessarily consider a success from a US or traditional Western point of view,” adds Cheadle, who served as a strategic analyst and adviser for Iraqi key leader engagements. 

US military officials expected “some violence and tribal fault lines to continue. They have," he notes. "I also think we expected business to begin to thrive and security conditions to trend upward. I think they have.”

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