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Can Iraq go it alone?

The dramatic drop in violenc over the past year is due in part to US-led efforts. But the insurgency could linger.

By Jane Arraf/ Correspondent / April 19, 2009

Saad Shalash/Reuters

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There is little ambiguity in President Obama's plan for an accelerated US withdrawal from Iraq: By August next year the combat mission will be over. By the end of 2011 all US troops are intended to be gone.

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US officials emphasize there are no current plans to keep American forces here past 2011. But as US forces shift gears to advisory and training roles, after six years of combat, the continuing insurgency and Iraq's budget crunch could cause Iraq and the US to rethink that plan.

While Iraq's security forces have improved dramatically, a wide variety of US officials interviewed for this article question whether they will be able to maintain hard-won gains in the face of a low-level insurgency expected to continue for years to come.

"The question is can the Iraqis keep it down without us being here, and we would assess right now that they cannot," says a senior US military official who asked to remain anonymous to be able to speak more freely. Iraq's security forces "are clearly better than they were, but they still do not have the capability to be their own self-sufficient counterinsurgency force."

That could mean that the US training force left after August 2010 would transition into a continuing military presence similar to those found elsewhere in the region. "I have very little doubt that the Iraqi government in 2011 will ask for some advisers to stay and I have very little doubt that the American government will honor that request," says John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert and president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank.

Unlike conventional warfare, fighting an enemy that blends into the population relies heavily on intelligence and on removing the reasons that people tolerate or support insurgents among them – everything from intimidation to unemployment.

Last year's surge of US and Iraqi troops was part of a counterinsurgency campaign aimed at not just killing and capturing insurgents but also protecting and winning the support of the population. Along with Sunni fighters turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq and a cease-fire by the Mahdi Army, the campaign led to a dramatic drop in violence. The senior US official, though, says low-level insurgencies such as Iraq's can last for years.

While the Iraqi Army has become relatively adept at conventional operations and has improved its planning and logistics, much of the drop in attacks over the past year has been achieved through counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations increasingly partnered with Iraqi troops but still led by US forces.