WASHINGTON — Six years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Americans and Iraqis for the first time have starkly different views about the country's future. Americans are ready to close the book on the war, but Iraqis say the story is far from over.
As the war enters its seventh year this week, Americans are winding down their military presence. Violence, while not over, it is at its lowest levels since the war began, and Iraqi forces, U.S. officials say, are better able than ever to secure their nation. The U.S. and Iraq have agreed that most U.S. troops must withdraw by the end of 2011.
Iraqis, however, worry that their war may be just beginning. January's provincial elections stoked tensions between Sunni Muslim Arabs and Kurds in northern Iraq that could spill over into central Iraq. It's not clear how Iraqi forces will conduct themselves once their American counterparts have left the battlefield. And Iraq is unable to secure its border with Iran, Turkey and its neighboring Arab states.
Which version of the story prevails in the next year will determine the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal and what kind of Iraq will be left behind.
From an American perspective, Iraq is now just one of a number of pressing issues. Along with the U.S. economic crisis, the war in Afghanistan and instability in Pakistan are the Obama administration's top priorities. They're interconnected, as the U.S. military can't increase its presence in Afghanistan without drawing down in Iraq and can't make progress in Afghanistan if Pakistan descends into chaos — and especially because a $504 billion war isn't sustainable in the current economy.
"The drawdown of our military should send a clear signal that Iraq's future is now its own responsibility," President Barack Obama told troops at Camp Lejeune, N.C., last month.
The U.S. expects this year to reduce its presence in Iraq by two brigades to 12, or approximately 120,000 combat troops from 138,000. Marine Corps commandant Gen. James T. Conway has called for transferring Marines to Afghanistan from Iraq's once restive Anbar province.
At the Pentagon, commanders say the situation in Iraq is tenable. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for a residual force to stay for some time.
But planners are already mapping what the U.S. military will look like once forces start leaving Iraq. How quickly the Army can increase its time off between deployments? When it can start training for battles other than urban counterinsurgencies? How can its forces shift their training and equipment to Afghanistan?
On Wednesday, Gates announced that the Army would end its stop loss program, the practice of ordering soldiers to stay in the service beyond their obligation, in part because the military expects to draw down forces in Iraq over the next 19 months.
In Iraq, though, most people worry that with the departure of the U.S. military, which many consider a necessary evil, violence will shoot up once again. Iraq's army and police are still fledgling forces backed by the U.S., and political parties, dueling ethnic groups and rival branches of Islam are vying for power, encouraging neighboring states to interfere.
Iraqis — and some U.S. military and intelligence officers and diplomats — think that different factions are counting the days until the Americans leave, aware that Iraqi forces aren't strong enough to fend off major violence. Iraqi forces still lack air power or sufficient logistical support and struggle to unite under a fractious government. Iraqi forces have turned to their American allies in the face of major battles.
"The situation in Iraq will improve only if the Americans and the Iraqi politicians withdraw from Iraq," said Abbas al Dulaimy, 31, as he walked through Baghdad. "The situation will soon be worse because the politicians will look out only for their interests like those who demand to divide Iraq . . . it will be chaos."
The status of forces agreement between the Iraqi and U.S. governments signed late last year will reduce boots on the ground as well as U.S. influence on Iraqi matters. The first major test comes in June, when U.S. troops are to withdraw from Iraqi cities.
Americans may assume that once forces leave, the U.S. military will no longer be responsible for what happens in Iraq. Many Iraqis think, however, that the U.S. hasn't prepared their nation to secure itself.
"The Iraqi army and police can't achieve stability in Iraq when the Americans withdraw unless the Americans correct the matter," said Usama al Najafi, a Sunni parliament member from the secular Iraqi National List, referring to corruption and sectarian and party loyalties within the security forces.
And yet even as U.S. soldiers increasingly sit idly at their outposts and watch Iraqis take the lead, the biggest political challenge remains deciding the country's political system. Will Iraq be a federal or decentralized state, secular or Islamist, autocratic or democratic? A more stable security situation has done little so far to answer those questions.
Iraqi officials say the U.S. will leave behind a situation that it couldn't fix.
What will happen when the last U.S. soldier leaves Iraq? No one knows.
Former U.S. envoy Ryan Crocker has come closest to publicly acknowledging that the war in Iraq isn't over. In interviews, Crocker has said that he thinks the most historic events of post-Saddam Iraq have yet to happen.
He hasn't suggested, however, that the U.S. will be there to see them.
(Youssef reported from Washington. Hammoudi, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Baghdad. McClatchy special correspondent Hussein Kadhim contributed to this article.)
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