updated 12/14/2008 7:15:56 PM ET 2008-12-15T00:15:56

President George W. Bush's whirlwind visit to Iraq was his ostensible victory lap for what often looked like a personal crusade.

The president leaves behind a war that even he and his own generals acknowledge is not yet over — and a devastated country whose divisions are far from healed.

Certainly, Baghdad is safer than it was a year ago. Bush visited the Green Zone on Sunday without being hustled for cover from the rockets and mortars that rained down on the area only six months ago.

But the country is far from safe by any normal standard. Nearly six years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq is a country of daily bombings, kidnappings and ambushes.

"There is still more work to be done," Bush said after his meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "The war is not over."

Prospects uncertain for stability
Prospects for stability are as uncertain as the fleeting stare of the heavily armed security guards who scour the streets for threats when they escort U.S. officials who foray outside their Green Zone enclave.

Suspicion among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — which fueled the war that erupted after Saddam Hussein's ouster — still run deep.

Nearly 150,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq — more than when Bush ordered the "troop surge" largely credited with curbing violence and arresting the country's slide toward full scale civil war.

"There is still more work to be done," Bush said after his meeting with al-Maliki. "The war is not over."

The architect of the surge, Gen. David Petraeus, didn't even like to use the word "victory" in connection with the Iraq war.

Petraeus left in September to take a new post as the U.S. military's regional commander for the Middle East. Before his departure, Petraeus said "this is not the sort of struggle where you take a hill, plant the flag and go home to a victory parade."

"It's not a war with a simple slogan," he told the British Broadcasting Corp.

It has taken more than 4,200 U.S. deaths to learn that simple truth.

The U.S. presence in Iraq was riven by mistakes for years, starting with what Bush called the "intelligence failure" that led him to believe Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction.

Not enough to maintain law and order
Bush then dispatched enough troops to defeat Saddam's army — but not enough the maintain law and order. The 2003 decision to disband the Iraqi army and purge members of Saddam's party drove thousands of Sunni Arabs to the insurgency.

U.S. officials were slow to respond to the insurgents. Dismissing them as "dead enders" from the Saddam regime, the Bush Pentagon failed to anticipate the Sunni-Shiite fighting that plunged the country to the brink of civil war in 2006.

The U.S. was also too quick to hand over responsibility to Iraq's fresh-minted security forces — a blunder that was reversed by the troop surge.

Bush resolute, despite public opinion
As the American public turned against the war, Bush remained resolute, even as his popularity dropped to historic lows.

He ordered the surge in 2006 after the Republicans lost control of Congress and against the advice of some of his party's most experienced foreign policy veterans.

Experts will debate for years whether it was the troop surge, or a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida, or the Shiite government's decision to confront Shiite militias that turned the tide.

Nor is in clear that the downturn in violence will last.

Nearly 100,000 Sunni insurgents turned against al-Qaida and joined forces with the Americans, who paid them. But they could switch sides again if the Shiite-led government fails to honor its promises of jobs for them.

Al-Qaida in Iraq and at least a dozen other Sunni groups remain active, especially in the north. Although U.S. and Iraqi forces crushed the Shiite militias last spring, U.S. commanders acknowledge privately that many of the fighters eluded them and could regroup.

U.S. commanders are cautious
With so much uncertainty, U.S. commanders are cautious.

"We are in no hurry to race away and have things crumble on us," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 commander. "This is hard work" because Iraq "is so very complex."

The future is in the hands of Bush's successor, President-elect Barack Obama, and the Iraqis themselves.

Obama campaigned on a promise to end the war, which he consistently opposed. The newly ratified U.S.-Iraqi security agreement sets a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal by 2012 — something the president resisted for years.

The challenge is now to manage the end of the war better than the beginning. Obama is keeping Bush's defense secretary, Robert Gates, to oversee it.

"It's important that we maintain enough presence here that we can help them get through this year of transition," Petraeus' successor, Gen. Raymond Odierno said this weekend. "We don't want to take a step backward because we've made so much progress here."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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