Security on the ground in Iraq is at one of its highest levels since the American invasion in 2003. But a number of factors that could threaten the fragile peace has forced the Bush White House to proceed cautiously as it plans to withdraw up to 8,000 troops by early next year.
Upcoming elections, lingering sectarian violence in the northern region, and the steady but still insufficient progress of the Iraqi security forces all helped to determine the number of troops President Bush announced Tuesday could be withdrawn.
But larger questions remain over how soon the Iraqi government will begin to absorb as many as 100,000 Iraqis known as the Sons of Iraq, a loosely organized Sunni-dominated group essentially paid by the US military to form a neighborhood watch program.
"I think this is a potentially huge problem with the Sons of Iraq," says one active duty military officer. "They are still the mortal enemy of the government of Iraq that we're there to support, and we've essentially rearmed and refitted them. That is the big question mark."
President Bush announced that he would begin to withdraw up to 8,000 American troops from Iraq by February, including a contingent of about 1,100 Marines from Iraq's once-deadly Anbar province in the next couple of months. That would leave 14 combat brigades and a total of about 138,000 US troops in Iraq as the new administration arrives.
"Here is the bottom line: While the enemy in Iraq is still dangerous, we have seized the offensive, and the Iraqi forces are becoming increasingly capable of leading and winning the fight," Bush said in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.
The deal represents a compromise between Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, who recommended leaving all 15 brigades on the ground until next June, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, who have been pushing to draw down in Iraq, in part to send a larger force to Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it was a "consensus view," says one senior Pentagon official, and each level in the chain of command agreed to the plan.
Security has much improved in Iraq under the surge of American troops, which ended in July. As one measure of violence and progress in Iraq, there were 13 American fatalities in July. That almost doubled to 23 last month, but is still lower than the high of 125 in May 2007 as the surge forces arrived.
The improved security is supposed to leave room for the Iraqi government to reconcile with Iraqi leaders, including many Sunni groups, a privileged minority under Saddam Hussein.
So far, only some elements of reconciliation have occurred. That leaves some analysts, military officials, and Democrats thinking a larger withdrawal will force the Iraqis to do more, and other experts believing the "deal hasn't been sealed" in Iraq, in the words of one analyst.
"We're entering the most critical period for long-term success in Iraq," says Fred Kagan, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who was instrumental during the planning of the surge. The US runs the risk of getting out of Iraq too fast to "rescue" Afghanistan – repeating the original mistake of exiting Afghanistan too quickly in 2002, says Mr. Kagan. "If you don't have enough to win everywhere at once, you make sure you keep enough of a force to win in the most important theater," he says.
Meanwhile, the government of Iraq will face one of its biggest tests in just a few weeks.
Under a new agreement announced in Baghdad earlier this month, Iraqis will assume responsibility for some 54,000 of the roughly 100,000 members of the Sons of Iraq. The program, which grew out of the so-called Awakening movement in Anbar province, has given former insurgents something to do as well as a stake in the security of their own neighborhoods. It's also a popular jobs program.
But before the US can truly leave Iraq, it must transition this mostly Sunni force to Iraqi control. The agreement to convert half of the force to Iraq by Oct. 1 could be a milestone if the Iraqis honor their word. The plan is to transition about 11,000 into the Iraqi security forces and give regular jobs to the rest, defense officials in Baghdad say.
In his speech Tuesday, Bush also announced a shift in emphasis to Afghanistan, where an insurgency has been growing.
"In November, a Marine battalion that was scheduled to deploy to Iraq will instead deploy to Afghanistan," Bush said. "It will be followed in January by an Army combat brigade."
Democrats are cautious in their assessment.
"The President's plan to reduce force levels in Iraq may seem to signal movement in the right direction, but it really defers troop reductions until the next administration," says Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri. "More significant troop reductions in Iraq are needed so that we can start to rebuild the US military readiness and provide the additional forces needed to finish the fight in Afghanistan."
But Rep. Jim Cooper (D) of Tennessee, who recently returned from a trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan, said Bush's announcement seemed "like the right thing to do" to allow more resources to be sent to Afghanistan. But he acknowledged that the security situation in Iraq remains tenuous and it must be monitored carefully.
"We still don't know if the enemy has quieted down or is just reloading," he said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. "There are a number of factors at play in that country and ... and it is still a very dangerous place."