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What to expect as U.S. withdraws from Iraq

On the sixth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News’ Pentagon correspondent, responds to questions about the plans for the U.S. withdrawal from the country.
Image: US Troops in Iraq
U.S. soldiers secure the area during a handover ceremony of one of Baghdad's government buildings on March 16, 2009. The U.S. military handed over the building belonging to Baghdad's governorate as part of the plan to transfer the responsibility of governmental premises to the Iraqi authorities. Ahmad Al-rubaye / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Six years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a timeline has been set for American troops presence in the country. President Barack Obama promised to end the combat mission in Iraq by August 31, 2010.

But with such a large presence in Iraq in terms of both manpower and machinery, how will the withdrawal happen? What will the role be of the troops left behind? And has the Obama administration made contingency plans in case Iraq dissolves back into civil war?

Jim Miklaszewski, NBC News’ Pentagon correspondent, responds to questions about the plans for the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

With the troops withdrawing, what will happen to all of the big and small military bases in Iraq the U.S. has built?
For the most part those bases will be turned over to the Iraqi military and police. Or in many cases where the U.S. military simply took over Iraqi facilities, turned back to Iraq's security forces.  

But by the time the U.S. military pulls up stakes, there may not be much left to turnover. Most of the structures at these bases are portable — sprawling tent cities, offices and other living quarters in mobile homes, even the bathroom facilities can be buttoned down and rolled away.

That process has actually already been underway. Over the past several years as the levels of violence steadily declined in many provinces and the Iraqi security forces grew in numbers and capabilities, the U.S. handed those bases and control of those areas to Iraq.

What will the role be of the troops who are left behind?   
Although the Status of Forces Agreement or SOFA, signed by the U.S. and Iraqi governments last November calls for the withdrawal of all American armed forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, senior American military officials believe the SOFA will be renegotiated to permit a smaller number of troops to remain. 

While the stated mission would be to advise and train Iraqi security forces, those same U.S. military officials tell NBC News that any U.S. military force left in Iraq would retain some combat element and capabilities to continue counterterrorism operations, as well as provide protection of U.S. embassy personnel.

One senior military official suggested that if necessary, to make it more politically acceptable, any remaining combat units could simply be renamed "advisory brigades."

Which type of service men and women will stay behind?
The bulk of any U.S. military force left in Iraq would be U.S. Army, including Special Operations Forces. A small contingent of Marines could also remain in one of their traditional roles — to provide security for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. 

But since the Iraqi Air Force is years away from reestablishing sufficient combat air power, defensive or offensive, a sizeable number of U.S. Air Force personnel and combat aircraft are expected to remain in Iraq stationed at either one or perhaps both air bases at Balad and or Kirkuk.

If Iraq dissolves back into civil war, will the approximately 50,000 or so troops left behind be able handle the situation?
To the White House, the Pentagon and military planners that would be the nightmare scenario — that Iraq would collapse into civil war after all or most U.S. forces have been withdrawn. 

It's the primary reason the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, argued strongly to slow down the Obama administration's timetable for withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and keep as many U.S. boots on the ground as possible. 

U.S. military officials announced earlier this month that 12,000 American soldiers, Marines and airmen would be withdrawn by this summer, bringing the total number of U.S. forces down to about 128,000 thousand. But that's where Odierno drew the line. He insisted that there be no additional reduction of U.S. troops levels in Iraq until at least the end of the year after critical Iraqi elections in December. 

By that time, if Iraqi political reconciliation is more firmly on track, the level of violence remains relatively low and the capabilities of Iraqi security forces continue to improve, the U.S. military should be able to proceed with plans to withdraw almost all American forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Is the Pentagon making contingency plans for how they would quickly shift troops back if there was a major uptick in violence?
If Iraq takes a turn for the worst, Obama would be faced with the enormously difficult strategic and political decision to either abandon Iraq or recommit American forces to the fight.  

Most military officials believe the reality will come down somewhere in the middle, where conditions in Iraq continue to improve, but a much smaller residual U.S. military force will remain for years to come, just in case.