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.
The Sons of Iraq (SOI) includes many ex-insurgents and is a largely Sunni group originally funded by the US. It grew out of the Awakening Movement in Anbar Province in which tribal chiefs turned against AQI and joined the Americans. But now it's bankrolled by the Shiite-led government, which has pledged to incorporate more of them into official security forces but remains suspicious of the local militias. It's still unclear whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will keep them on the government payroll or disband the group altogether. As a counterweight, Mr. Maliki has established tribal support councils funded by his government to serve similar functions in Shiite areas.
SOI members say that, if they are disbanded, many will be either be killed by AQI fighters or return to the insurgency.
Has the political situation improved?
Iraqis have more control over their destiny than at any time since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. As security fears recede, the focus has shifted to whether provincial elections – scheduled for Jan. 31 – will result in more representation and eventually a better-functioning government. The next national elections could take place as early as December 2009.