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As violence ebbs, the next hurdle for Iraq is political progress

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has vowed to capitalize on security gains to revive the political process in the coming year.

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The US has gone out of its way to stress that Al Qaeda is still a serious threat.

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The spokesman for US-led multinational forces, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, said on Dec. 19, "Al Qaeda in Iraq continues to be the principle threat to security and stability."

And despite the recent gains, the commander of forces in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, said on the same day that Al Qaeda has been pushed to his region and predicted that it will carry out "spectacular attacks."

In his parting words as outgoing commander of multinational forces in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Joseph Fil said on Dec. 17 that in many parts of the capital, Al Qaeda and its affiliates were "lurking in the shadows, where they are working quietly, secretively and, I think, very determinedly to regain power and to still continue their attacks."

How will Iraq's neighbors act?

Mr. Dodge says he is seeing a possible turnaround in Syria's stance toward Iraq.

"There is a sense in Damascus that they have now more to gain by restricting insurgents than by promoting them," he says, referring to rapprochement with Washington and economic cooperation with Iraq's government, most notably the announcement in December that an oil pipeline between Iraq and Syria will be fixed and reopened.

As for Iran and its promise, according to Iraqi and US officials, to stop the funding and arming of Shiite militias, the US says it continues to have a wait-and-see attitude. But many analysts point to rising Iranian influence on all fronts.

"Iran supports a wide range of proxies, some of which are in direct competition with one another. It is clear that Iran's leaders want the Iraqi state to remain weak," said the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies in a December report.

The extent to which Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, are involved in destabilizing Iraq in the name of protecting their Sunni population will remain a major point of contention.

Iraq's national security adviser, Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, accused Saudi Arabia in December of using Iraq to settle scores with Shiite Iran, while a study released by the US Army's West Point military academy on Dec. 19 revealed that 41 percent of all foreign fighters entering Iraq from August 2006 to August 2007 were Saudi nationals.

What will happen to the US-funded Sunni militias and tribal groups?

The greatest success in Iraq touted by the US military and government in 2007 were the "awakening councils" against Al Qaeda. The groups of US-funded ex-insurgents in Anbar Province and local neighborhood watch groups throughout Iraq made up of former militants are now collectively called "Concerned Local Citizens," or CLCs. The US says there are now 300 CLC groups comprising about 71,000 individuals, of whom 80 percent are Sunnis and the remaining 20 percent Shiite. Many analysts say they will be a major factor – and a major concern – in 2008.

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