Will President-elect Barack Obama accelerate the US withdrawal?
Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between Iraq and the US, some American troops have already started pulling back to major bases that will become regional military hubs. US forces are set to leave most cities by July and are scheduled to be completely out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
Even though Mr. Obama said during his campaign that he would withdraw forces within 16 months of taking office, military commanders, senior Iraqi officials, and Middle East experts have stressed that a rush to leave could be disastrous.
"Realism is the key to success, and Iraqi and US leaders need to be extremely careful about exaggerating Iraqi capabilities and the speed with which the US can safely withdraw its forces and advisory teams from Iraq," cautioned Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a recent report. "The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are still very much a work in progress."
American diplomats understand the need to keep a close eye on changing conditions before ending the occupation. "We've got to be very agile here, I think, as conditions change in Iraq and as Iraqis change in their perceptions," says US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is leaving next month after two years as head of the US mission in Iraq. "So far we've done a pretty fair job of what could have been extremely bad for the US and Iraq, and that was perpetuating the sense that the US is determined to hang on here."
How quickly American forces could withdraw "depends on how much equipment we're leaving behind," says one military official. "If we're allowed to leave most of it behind, we can be gone pretty quickly."