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."
Iraqis could vote in a national referendum later this year on whether to demand that US troops withdraw sooner. If that vote is held, it has the potential to force the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq as early as mid-2010 – a similar time frame promised by Obama.
What role will the Sons of Iraq play this year?
American military commanders believe the group is essential to keeping the peace. What happens to this approximately 90,000-large, well-armed but largely untrained group could impact the state of the insurgency.