Iraqi cities: Could violence bring US forces back?
Key challenges remain, including the discontent of former Sunni insurgents recruited by the US and credited with improving security.
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Key challenge: Former Sunni jihadis recruited by U.S.Skip to next paragraph
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Attacks on US interests in Iraq, and consequent US casualties, are likely to remain a challenge until Sunni Arabs, upset at what they see as the dominance of Maliki's Shiite coalition over the state and the distribution of its resources, cease their low-level insurgency. But some analysts warn that the biggest threat to Iraq's stability will be a failure to integrate some of the Sunni fighters that once fought the Americans and the Iraqi government.
Known as the Awakening Council or Sons of Iraq, these former jihadis were recruited and paid by the US as part of Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, which has been credited for slashing the number of daily attacks from 170 in June 2007 to below 20 today, according to a report by the US government's General Accounting Office.
Colonel Lang says that if the government stops making payments to the Sons of Iraq – as some Shiite politicians have been urging – or otherwise takes action that leads to further alienation, a return to full-scale sectarian warfare can't be ruled out.
"It isn't so much a question of them taking up arms against the government at first," he says, "so much as they might stop helping, as they've been informing on and chasing around the [Sunni rejectionists] and so forth. But if goes far enough, they will start fighting the government again."
In remarks after he met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak this week, General Petraeus acknowledged that much progress on political reconciliation inside the country has yet to be made.
"There are many, many difficult political issues, social issues, governmental development issues," he said, adding, "We feel confident in the Iraqi military forces continuing the process of taking over the security tasks in their own country."
'Patchwork quilt of former rivals'
The numerous Sunni contingents that came together under the Sons of Iraq were among more than 200 separate armed groups with whom the US made arrangements that led to Iraq's relative calm, according to a report on Iraq released in late May. Other groups included Shiite militias, such as the one aligned with militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"The result is a patchwork quilt in which former rivals, who retain their weapons, their organizations, and often their leaders, coexist uneasily in close proximity under the terms of deals reached with local US military authorities over the course of 2007," wrote author Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Parties to intense ethno-sectarian warfare do not just forget the mass violence of the past overnight ... some will surely stretch the terms of their agreements to see what they can get away with."