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Iraq withdrawal: How many US troops will remain?

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August was the first month of the Iraq war that registered no US casualties, a milestone that reflects a transition to Iraqi forces for ensuring the country’s security.

Yet under any scenario the function of US troops in Iraq would not realistically limited to providing training, military experts say.

“The key thing determining the number of troops you leave there, if any, will be: What is their mission?” says Kerry Kachejian, a former Army engineer who for several years directed numerous reconstruction projects in Iraq. “Is it really just to train, or is it to provide some reassurance – and some backup to the military if there is some deterioration?”

Colonel Kachejian, a reservist who has just written a book, “SUVs Suck in Combat: The Rebuilding of Iraq During a Raging Insurgency,” says US and Iraqi leaders have to balance the need for Iraqis to take full control of their own security against the reality of continuing conflict.

“It’s still not a fully stable environment,” he says.

Indeed, the good news for US forces’ diminishing casualties does not mean that Iraq has achieved domestic tranquility. A recent uptick in sectarian violence – including the deadly bombing of a Sunni mosque in Baghdad during Ramadan – has some Iraqis, especially Sunnis and Kurds, worried that a full US withdrawal will lead to new tensions with the country’s Shiite majority.

But Iraq’s prime minister, the Shiite Nouri al-Maliki, is showing no signs (at least publicly) of favoring any residual US force in Iraq. Some elements in his coalition, in particular the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, are outspoken in their opposition to any US forces staying behind after the end of the year.

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