June's pullback is part of the phased withdrawal of US forces. Will it jeopardize hard-won security gains?
On a dusty day in late April, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq, toured Baghdad's predominately Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah with only a camo cap on his signature shiny head. The flimsy cap, in place of a combat-ready helmet, and his informal chats with street merchants signified just how far Adhamiyah – a one-time urban hotbed of the insurgency – has come.
The true test of Iraq's progress, however, may be what precautions General Odierno takes after US forces leave Iraq's cities, a step set to occur by the end of June under a US-Iraqi agreement. Car bombs, suicide bombs, and other violence flared in April, leading some to ask whether pulling US troops back to their bases outside the cities will jeopardize – or is already jeopardizing – the hard-won security gains of the 2007 "surge" and counterinsurgency plan.
"A big part of what made the surge [of extra US troops] so successful was the highly visible presence of US forces in the neighborhoods," says Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University here and a former Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency. "The last time we hunkered back in the bunkers was also when we saw some of the ugliest fighting and the worst of the violence. That can't help but raise questions about where we're headed now."
One of the biggest concerns is over Iraq's north, where ethnic tensions between Sunni Arabs and Kurds have been rising since January's provincial elections.
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