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The war in Iraq: soldiers assess 'peaks and valleys,' prospects of a final attack

As they prepare for the final exit from the war in Iraq, US troops aim to avoid any spectacular attack – and take stock of a conflict that gave the Middle East its worst violence in recent decades.

Soldiers of the US Army's 115th Brigade Support Battalion hoist tow bars as they rehearse mounting a withdrawal convoy of armored vehicles from Iraq south to Kuwait at their location 25 miles southeast of Baghdad at Kalsu Base, Iraq, on November 22, 2011. With less than 20,000 American troops left in Iraq from a peak of more than 170,000, US commanders say they are on track for a total withdrawal by December 31, which will end the 8 1/2-year US military presence in Iraq that saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein, a brutal civil war and insurgency, and finally a deadlocked democratic Iraqi government.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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As he watches yet another US military column prepare to drive across Iraq’s southern desert wastelands and withdraw into Kuwait, US Army Col. Scott Efflandt fears the impact of any final strike against his troops.

"What we worry about is a disproportional attack that taints the overall accomplishments," says Efflandt, speaking at this dusty staging post 30 miles south of Baghdad.

"So a spectacular rocket attack – which has happened in Iraq repeatedly in the years we've been here – if that's the last thing that happens in Iraq, you know, like a chef at a restaurant, you're only as good as your last meal,” says Efflandt.

From its first "shock and awe" moments in March 2003, the American invasion of Iraq was about shaping perceptions. The bombing of Baghdad, live on TV, was meant to be so overwhelming that Saddam Hussein's regime would crumble – and along with it, the resolve of America's enemies from Al Qaeda on down.

Nearly nine years later, as American forces fully withdraw by Dec. 31, the US military is eager to do what it can to shape the legacy of a war that has witnessed the worst violence in the Middle East in recent decades, bitterly divided Americans over its cost in blood and treasure, and has now almost become a distraction or forgotten by the public at large.

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