US and Iraqi officials facing an increase in high-profile suicide bombs do not believe it signals a reversal of a trend of declining attacks. But they say political maneuvering by an Iraqi leadership preparing for national elections is likely to sway decisions that are key to bolstering security.
In a series of interviews, senior US and Iraqi officials and US intelligence officers say they expect gains made against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to continue to limit the group's ability to destabilize stronger Iraqi security forces and a more confident government.
But the outlook for progress in some of the country's most volatile cities is less certain. Iraqi security officials in Mosul and Diyala Province have consistently said that they need the assistance of US troops past a June 30 deadline for American forces to leave Iraqi cities. But Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki's recent statements that he will not ask US forces to stay in those cities, while domestically popular ahead of elections next year, has sent military planners scrambling.
"In many parts of the country, there is crystal-clear agreement among US and Iraqi military leaders," says a senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. "The higher up you go, the more other factors are entered into the equation." At that level, he says, "campaigning has already begun for the national elections."
Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) adopted by the US and Iraq last November after a year of difficult negotiations, American troops must be out of all Iraqi cities by the end of June, and out of Iraq entirely by the end of 2011.
US and Iraqi officials are now assessing whether US combat troops are needed past June in areas in the north of Iraq where Sunni insurgents took refuge after being pushed out of Baghdad.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top US general in Iraq, has warned that in the country's third-biggest city, Mosul, Iraqi security forces need enough time in neighborhoods still being cleared of insurgents to ensure they don't come back.
The strategy of placing American troops closer to the population they are trying to protect was seen as a major factor in the military surge's success in reducing violence.
Maliki's public statements
Most American and Iraqi officials say they believe Mr. Malaki's statements are for public consumption and do not preclude making an exemption to the June deadline in some cities. An exemption would technically be different from an extension, something the prime minister has said he would not authorize.
"Malaki is fully aware of the need for a US presence in those places," says one senior Iraqi official.
A sharp increase in suicide bombings that killed more than 350 Iraqis in April has ignited fears that violence could again spiral beyond Iraqi forces' control, just as US troops are withdrawing from major centers.
While intelligence officers say they don't believe last month's attacks constitute a trend, they worry about unpredictable factors – primarily, the effect of budget cuts on Iraq's still-vulnerable security forces and the future of a paid volunteer force that has been key to reducing violence.
"If the level of violence today is what it is, it's fine," says one intelligence officer. "But when you take the Sons of Iraq off the street ... and you take us out of the mix, and now there's a void there.... What is the impact going to be of the budget, of getting these legacy issues resolved, of the elections? There are a lot of uncertainties here."
The "legacy issues" include long-delayed laws that would govern powersharing and oil revenue as well as the status of the city of Kirkuk and other territories claimed by both Arabs and Kurds.
Watching for patterns of attacks
Iraqis have been unsettled by last month's suicide bombs, which killed the largest number of people since September, most of them civilians. The targets included a major Shiite shrine in Baghdad and seemed aimed at reigniting sectarian fighting that dragged Iraq into civil war two years ago.
But the intelligence community is watching for patterns in attacks – particularly the length of time it takes between planning and executing bombings. Intelligence officials say AQI's capacity to launch frequent, effective, and complex attacks has diminished as the US and Iraq have dismantled key parts of its network.
"I still think the trend [in attacks] continues to go down as we approach a key couple of dates: the deadline to be out of the cities, and then the elections," says one of the intelligence officers, who asked to remain anonymous as a matter of policy on intelligence issues.
He says he would be concerned if he saw a renewed ability to quickly execute sophisticated attacks: "It's more if you start seeing that cycle of violence start to become more compact."
"It's the scope and character of the violence, the effect of the violence, and the quality of that violence and where that violence occurs," rather than the number of attacks, says one of the intelligence officers.
"The bigger issue is the environment for their operations, their freedom of movement, their recruiting," this officer says. "At the same time you have a growth in capacity of governance at the local, provincial, and national level, and the Iraqi Security Forces are slowly developing."
Despite that, retaliatory attacks from either Shiite extremists or Iranian-backed groups could set the cycle in motion again.
"What they're really worried about is that Al Qaeda is really focusing on attacks that can ignite sectarian tensions," says a senior State Department official. "The critical factor is: Are the AQI attacks succeeding in producing follow-on violence? You've seen the small rise in attacks and a big spike in civilian casualties, but you haven't seen a spike in sectarian violence."
'Acceptable' level of violence
For officials who have long talked about "an acceptable level of violence" that Iraqi forces can handle and the Iraqi public will tolerate, this might be close to it.
"You're still going to get high-profile attacks, whether it's 10 a month, or 12 or 15. You're still going to get those, but [they will be] less effective," says one of the intelligence officers.
The less predictable question remains whether, with the US pullout and the confluence of Iraqi budget problems and Iraqi politics, Iraqi security forces a year from now will be capable of curbing those attacks on their own.
"That's a tough call to make," says one intelligence officer, saying he personally believes they will within the next year. "We've all got a lot to do frankly to just watch the situation and continue to gauge some of the wild cards and the capability."