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Iraqi cities: Could violence bring US forces back?

Key challenges remain, including the discontent of former Sunni insurgents recruited by the US and credited with improving security.

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On Tuesday, the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq's cities was more or less complete – a sign that, six years after the troops arrived, Iraq is much safer than at the height of its sectarian violence a few years ago.

Yet Iraq is still a very dangerous place. Four US soldiers were killed on patrol in Baghdad Monday night, and 70 Iraqis were killed by a truck bomb in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City last week.

Now, both US and Iraqi commanders say they expect an increase in attacks as insurgents test the new security arrangements in the coming weeks, which raises the question: Is there a threshold of violence beyond which US troops would return?

"You are going to see, as we withdraw, a lot more fighting and violence between Sunni and Shiites," says Col. Pat Lang, former head of the Middle East desk at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. "But it would take a lot – a lot – for [President] Obama to be willing to fully reengage, and [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki isn't really going to want him to anyway. We have to accept the idea that it's over, really; Maliki said it's over, really, and our timetable, out by the end of 2011, is the one we're going to follow."

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