|US-trained Iraqi forces are expected to fill the security gap once US troops leave [EPA]
Amal Hassan remembers the day US tanks first rolled passed her house in the al-Kadhimiya district of Baghdad.
She was glad that Saddam Hussein's government had been toppled but felt uneasy that foreign troops were occupying Iraq.
Six years later, as US troops begin to scale back from Iraqi urban centres in advance of a withdrawal, Amal says she is worried the security situation could rapidly deteriorate.
US troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30, 2009, and complete a withdrawal from the country by 2011.
"I'm afraid that after the Americans leave, Iraqi and foreign political factions still won't settle their quarrels in a peaceful manner," she told Al Jazeera.
Some Iraqi analysts and military experts have also quietly expressed concern that the Iraqi armed forces might not be adequately prepared to fill the security void once US troops have left.
"There is much to do over the next two years to fill the gaps and prepare the Iraqi army for the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country," said Abdul Karim al-Samarai, an Iraqi MP and the vice-president of the committee on peace and defence in the parliament.
Violence in Iraq peaked after sectarian tensions were inflamed following the destruction of Al-Askari Mosque, a shrine revered by both Shia and Sunnis, in Samarra in 2006, and there were fears the country could disintegrate into civil war.
But the level of violence decreased by the end of 2007, following the creation of Awakening Councils (Sunni tribal militias working with the US forces) to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq, and the US military "surge".
A report released by the Pentagon in 2008 said that violence had dropped by 40 to 80 per cent.
However, Iraqi and American security analysts warn that al-Qaeda still commands control of many areas in northern Iraq with the security situation there only "50 per cent stable".
Both Ray Odierno, the commanding general of multi-national forces, and Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, have in recent weeks hinted that the combat mission mandate for some US troops could be extended beyond the June 30 deadline in the northern provinces.
Mohammed al-Askari, a general in the Iraqi armed forces and al-Maliki's special military adviser, says "there is much work to do in provinces like Diyala (northeast of Baghdad), where terrorist elements are still active".
In early February, a suicide bomber killed 12 and wounded 15 at a restaurant in Khaniqin, a multi-ethnic city in Diyala. A month earlier, a bomb killed several in the neighbouring town of Khalis. Iraqi commanders say that al-Qaeda forces have regrouped in Diyala after being forced out of other parts of Iraq.
"Safety in Iraq is still compromised by criminal elements inside the country, including those that have penetrated the ministry of interior, and by the ill-intentions of international elements, including foreign troops, terrorist groups, and private security companies," al-Samarai said.
He believes that the success of the Iraqi army in destroying al-Qaeda in Iraq and other organisations is also largely dependent on political developments in the country.
While the provincial elections held on January 31 proved that Iraqi forces are capable of securing the country, he also urged that efforts be made to capitalise on such improvements.
"The success of the political process is the only way to ensure that foreign troops leave. This is the dream of every Iraqi," he said.
The elections led to the formation of new alliances bridging the Shia-Sunni divide.
Since the emergence of the Awakening Councils, which have been credited by US commanders as a factor in stabilising Iraq in the past two years, tribal support for political parties has become prominent.
Al-Askari says the tribal role in the electoral process as well as a rapprochement between al-Maliki's government with both Shia and Sunni tribes has strengthened the capability of the Iraqi military to work with local militias in areas formerly controlled by al-Qaeda.
"In the past, al-Qaeda used to control entire towns and villages outside Baghdad, but now they are nowhere to be found," he said.
|Analysts say Baghdad should capitalise on the stability reached during the elections [AFP]
"The only threat facing Iraqis today is the suicide bomber and the improvised explosive device since we have eliminated all others."
The 2011 deadline for US troop withdrawal may have also forced once rival ethnic factions to forge coalitions. Al-Maliki, a Shia, has been quick to cement his provincial poll win by reaching out to Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni MP from the Iraqi National Dialogue Party, who has been an outspoken critic of US forces.
Such a coalition could pacify cities in Diyala province where fighting has raged between Shia and Sunni militias.
Al-Askari is confident that the political atmosphere in Iraq will ensure the Iraqi military's success in securing and stabilising the country once US forces have left.
"The army is one level of readiness away from being able to take full control. All that is missing is some more air force and naval preparations," al-Askari told Al Jazeera.
Iraq only recently gained the right to purchase weapons directly from the global market, without USinvolvement.
"There are arms deals with many friendly nations including Serbia, France, China and Japan," he said.
Nevertheless, some Iraqis doubt the US really intends to leave.
Sabah al-Nasseri, an Iraqi professor of political science at York University in Toronto, believes doubts raised about the Iraqi army's readiness could be part of attempts to "create a fait accompli to force US troops to stay even longer".
He said: "This might be a conflict between the US military and Barack Obama, the US president, over geo-strategic concerns in Iraq."
As early as 2007, Obama vowed during his campaign that he will "not babysit a civil war" in Iraq.
The current withdrawal agreement includes plans to leave a force of 50,000 troops in the country after 2011, in what has been described as a "counter-terrorism and training" mission.
Al-Nasseri says that American troops will only fully withdraw if "the Iraqi people create realities on the ground that will force them to leave."
He does admit, however, that a US withdrawal will improve the security situation in Iraq, "because the main source of antagonising in the country will be gone".
The refugee factor
It remains to be seen whether millions of refugees, who still live in Syria, Jordan and Egypt after fleeing the violence since 2003, will be encouraged to return to Iraq once US troops leave.
Sundus Abdul Hadi, an Iraqi artist living in Montreal, last visited Iraq in 2004 and has not returned since. She feels that the US will always maintain a foothold in Iraq but says that she "will return with or without America leaving".
Hazem Rhayem, a 54-year-old Iraqi war veteran from Baghdad now living in Syria, says the US has broken too many promises.
"There have been many promises made since the occupation, but we are still without electricity, our health-care system is a shambles, and our children still lack real opportunities," he said.
He says a US troop withdrawal would be a first step in reversing an ill-advised invasion and occupation. But he says he is very sceptical.
"Why would the Americans leave after investing so much human and financial cost?"