The Obama administration has concluded the risk of a security collapse in Iraq is too slight to slow plans for withdrawing U.S. troops. In the run-up to June 30, the deadline for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities, the nation has been rocked by big attacks, including a bombing Wednesday evening in the Sadr City district of Baghdad that killed more than 50.
Still, intelligence analysts, policy advisers and military officers in Washington and Iraq said in a series of interviews that they believe the threat of renewed sectarian warfare is receding — even with the transfer of security control from U.S. to Iraqi hands.
At stake in that judgment is not only Iraq's hope for stability after six years of war, but also an early verdict on President Barack Obama's decision to do less in Iraq in order to do more to turn around the war in Afghanistan.
The next milestone on the path to U.S. military disengagement is next Tuesday's deadline for American combat forces to leave Iraqi cities, including Mosul, which has been a hotbed of insurgent activity. The deadline is in an agreement reached during the administration of President George W. Bush as a step toward the full withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
String of violence
Preceding Wednesday's carnage, a string of bombings and shootings in Baghdad and elsewhere killed dozens earlier this week, and on Saturday a truck bombing near the northern oil center of Kirkuk killed at least 75.
Officials believe the bloodiest attacks are the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, the diminished but resilient insurgent group believed to be run largely by foreign Arabs.
It is the al-Qaida group's decline — in numbers of fighters, resources and effectiveness — over the past year that gives U.S. officials greater confidence that Iraq will stay largely on track toward stability even as the American role grows smaller.
The optimistic view was captured in a recent remark by Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who is on his third tour there.
"The dark days of previous years are behind us," he said.
Still, a prevailing view among U.S. intelligence officials who closely follow trends in Iraq is that violence is likely to rise this summer.
Attack numbers are going to go up as U.S. combat patrols are reduced, said one military intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an internal assessment of violence trends.
In that view, the insurgents will regain some momentum as the U.S. presence grows thinner. But the intelligence analysts also believe the insurgents' gains will be too small to trigger a renewed cycle of sectarian warfare. A cycle of violence between Sunnis and Shiites in 2006-07 brought Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war.
Some private analysts worry that the administration may be underestimating the possibility that continuing violence and political turmoil could lead to an unraveling of the security situation.
Stephen Biddle, who periodically served as an adviser to Gen. David Petraeus when Petraeus was the overall U.S. commander in Iraq in 2007-08, takes a cautious view, although he does not predict an Iraqi collapse. He recommends slowing the pace of the announced U.S. withdrawal, while noting that this would impose tough political costs on a president who campaigned on a promise of a rapid action.
"But failure in Iraq has major costs of its own, both for Americans and for Iraqis," Biddle wrote in an analysis last month titled, "Reversal in Iraq." "On balance, paying the cost of a slower withdrawal, while expensive, may ultimately be the cheaper approach."
There are still about 131,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 12 combat brigades, and the total is not expected to drop below 128,000 until after the Iraqi national election expected in January. But the mission of the remaining American troops is shifting from combat to training and advising.
Senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials said they expect al-Qaida in Iraq to continue to mount sporadic high-profile attacks such as suicide car bombings. But the officials maintain that the terror group no longer has the capacity to sustain those attacks for long periods of time as it did until last year.
Al-Qaida's freedom of action has been restricted, and its support networks have been badly damaged, said one senior intelligence analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss his organization's internal assessment of the outlook for further progress in Iraq.
Officials: Attacks will continue
That official also said al-Qaida has not given up on Iraq. He said recently intercepted internal al-Qaida messages made clear that top leaders of the terrorist network still want to keep a foothold in the Middle East.
Other intelligence officials said they believe attacks will continue to target Shiites in an effort to fuel sectarian tensions. Those attacks are likely to be focused on Baghdad and Diyala province northeast of the capital, plus Kirkuk and the northern city of Mosul.
But officials have been encouraged by signs that the Shiite-led government has been restrained in its reactions to attacks on Shiite neighborhoods. Efforts at political reconciliation continue, they said.
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told visiting chiefs of defense from the Middle East this week that it is now up to Iraqi political leaders to take advantage of the security gains. Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the same group that their governments should not only assist Baghdad's development but also help in containing neighboring Iran.
After reviewing his Iraq options, Obama announced on Feb. 27 that the U.S. combat mission would end in August 2010. He said the U.S. was shifting its focus to fighting al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which would require redirecting troops and military resources from Iraq while relying more on Iraqi forces in their own country.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for the Iraqi security forces to rise to the occasion," Army Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, the top U.S. commander in northern Iraq, said in a telephone interview last week. Caslen said the Iraqis would "definitely rise to the occasion."
Caslen's area of responsibility includes Kirkuk, where Arab-Kurd tensions have been on the rise, as well as Mosul, where an increase in U.S. combat power in recent months has curbed but not eliminated violence.
Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said last week that on a recent visit to Mosul he saw "a lot of tension" and concerns among the major ethnic groups "about what life will be like in the future" as they attempt to reach lasting political accommodations.
But Hill said the trends are pointing in the right direction across Iraq.
Even with the improvement, Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters Wednesday that as long as threats continue to exist and the Iraqi government needs support, there will be a role for the U.S. in Iraq.
"I don't think anybody's too preoccupied with declaring victory," he said. "I don't think it's necessarily something we'll ever do."