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.
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American diplomats understand the need to keep a close eye on changing conditions before ending the occupation. "We've got to be very agile here, I think, as conditions change in Iraq and as Iraqis change in their perceptions," says US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is leaving next month after two years as head of the US mission in Iraq. "So far we've done a pretty fair job of what could have been extremely bad for the US and Iraq, and that was perpetuating the sense that the US is determined to hang on here."Skip to next paragraph
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How quickly American forces could withdraw "depends on how much equipment we're leaving behind," says one military official. "If we're allowed to leave most of it behind, we can be gone pretty quickly."
Iraqis could vote in a national referendum later this year on whether to demand that US troops withdraw sooner. If that vote is held, it has the potential to force the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq as early as mid-2010 – a similar time frame promised by Obama.
What role will the Sons of Iraq play this year?
American military commanders believe the group is essential to keeping the peace. What happens to this approximately 90,000-large, well-armed but largely untrained group could impact the state of the insurgency.
The Sons of Iraq (SOI) includes many ex-insurgents and is a largely Sunni group originally funded by the US. It grew out of the Awakening Movement in Anbar Province in which tribal chiefs turned against AQI and joined the Americans. But now it's bankrolled by the Shiite-led government, which has pledged to incorporate more of them into official security forces but remains suspicious of the local militias. It's still unclear whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will keep them on the government payroll or disband the group altogether. As a counterweight, Mr. Maliki has established tribal support councils funded by his government to serve similar functions in Shiite areas.
SOI members say that, if they are disbanded, many will be either be killed by AQI fighters or return to the insurgency.
Has the political situation improved?
Iraqis have more control over their destiny than at any time since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. As security fears recede, the focus has shifted to whether provincial elections – scheduled for Jan. 31 – will result in more representation and eventually a better-functioning government. The next national elections could take place as early as December 2009.
The provincial polls in 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces are expected to redraw Iraq's political landscape. Iraq's Sunni Arab minority, which widely boycotted previous polls, could come out in large numbers. A more representative government would mean less likelihood of a resurgence of the Sunni insurgency but would include setbacks for Kurdish and Shiite parties.
A bewildering array of candidates and parties and lingering security concerns will make voting a challenge in many parts of the country, where literacy rates have plunged since the 1990s. In Maysan Province, for instance, 800 candidates are expected to be on the ballot.
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