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As war winds down, will Iraq's progress hold steady?

Violence has plummeted and US forces are pulling back, but the year ahead will test the staying power of gains throughout the country.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / January 8, 2009

Taking over: Iraqis will assume more military and political control as US forces pull back this year. Above, an Iraqi soldier on Monday stood guard outside a Shiite shrine in Karbala.

Ahmed Alhussainey/AP


Last year saw vast improvements in Iraq. Violence dropped dramatically and Iraqis took greater political and military control. But war is still being fought, suicide bombings remain a near daily menace, and the gains are fragile. The year ahead will test the staying power of progress as US military forces begin to withdraw, Iraqi politicians jostle for power in Baghdad and beyond, and a new administration in Washington assumes responsibility for the war as it enters its seventh year.

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How safe is Iraq?

The mix of the US and Iraqi military troop surge, many Sunnis turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to work with American forces, and a cease-fire among the Shiite militia known as the Mahdi Army ended much of the sectarian fighting that racked the country in 2007.

The increase in security has been striking in Baghdad, where shops are reopening and concrete barriers are being removed. But the surge did push insurgents north to cities like Mosul and Baquba, where attacks are still common but increasingly focused on Iraqi security forces rather than civilians. To be sure, insurgents are still able to carry out high-profile suicide bombings.

According to estimates from independent organizations, between 6,700 and 8,000 Iraqis were killed in attacks in 2008, more than a 50 percent drop compared with 2007. According to the Associated Press, 314 US troops are believed to have died in Iraq in 2008 compared with 904 servicemen and women killed in 2007.

Will President-elect Barack Obama accelerate the US withdrawal?

Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the US, some American troops have already started pulling back to major bases that will become regional military hubs. US forces are set to leave most cities by July and are scheduled to be completely out of Iraq by the end of 2011.

Even though Mr. Obama said during his campaign that he would withdraw forces within 16 months of taking office, military commanders, senior Iraqi officials, and Middle East experts have stressed that a rush to leave could be disastrous.

"Realism is the key to success, and Iraqi and US leaders need to be extremely careful about exaggerating Iraqi capabilities and the speed with which the US can safely withdraw its forces and advisory teams from Iraq," cautioned Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a recent report. "The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are still very much a work in progress."

Key elections across the Middle East

ISRAEL (February): The Gaza offensive could shape the results of national elections.

ALGERIA (April): The parliament amended the Constitution, allowing the president to run for a third term.

YEMEN (April): A dispute among parties over electoral procedure could delay polls.

LEBANON (June): Hezbollah is expected to perform strongly.

IRAN (June): President Amadinejad, weakened by the economy and international isolation, is running for reelection.

– Compiled by Kristen Chick