Iraq has turned into a back-burner issue, but there's still plenty to worry about in a country that remains far from stable.
Attacks across the country this week raised a host of questions about the ability of Iraq's security forces to maintain control. There are still nearly 50,000 American troops stationed in the country. But their primary mission now is to train Iraqi soldiers, and most of the U.S. forces are scheduled to leave by Dec. 31 under an agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
"Certainly, when you see the kind of violence we've seen this past week, that causes huge angst and the potential ... of reigniting terrorist violence and playing into sectarian divides," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.
Monday was the country's most violent day in more than a year, with nearly 90 people killed around the country in 42 separate attacks, including car bombings, shootings and suicide bombers. The killings have continued through the week, with at least 16 more dead and dozens wounded in attacks around the north and central sections of the country.
Iraq faces several other deep challenges. They include the question of how to divide profits from oil, who should control parts of the Kurdish north, and the ability of the political system to govern effectively. Each is like a thread which, if pulled, could lead at least to a partial unraveling of the country's security.
"The possibility, of course, in the pessimistic direction, is that full scale civil war will break out," says Dan Caldwell, a political scientist at Pepperdine University.
Caldwell says there's really no telling what will happen in Iraq once the U.S. troops are all but gone by the end of this year. Most analysts predict that the U.S. will leave around 10,000 soldiers in Iraq, alongside a large State Department presence and a sizable contingent of private American security contractors.
"It's my hope, and I think it's a possibility, that a residual American force in Iraq can prevent the situation from dissolving into civil war," says Caldwell, author of Vortex of Conflict, a recent book about U.S. engagement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But he concedes that leaving behind a reasonably stable, functioning government is a far cry from the initial U.S. aim. At the time of the 2003 invasion, the George W. Bush administration had "almost a euphoric vision of Iraq as the new Switzerland of the Middle East, almost, and hoping democracy would spread throughout the Middle East like prairie fire."
Instead, as democratic aspirations have swept across the region this year with the Arab Spring, that actually has served to complicate the picture in Iraq. To cite one example, there have been heightened tensions between Shiite and Sunni powers — notably Iran and Saudi Arabia. That could have a spillover effect in terms of ethnic politics within Iraq.
Ethnic Divisions In The Military
There are still questions about how Iraq's military divisions are going to be organized — whether they will be primarily made up of ethnic groups reflecting the demographics of the territory in which they're operating, or whether they'll be made intentionally more diverse.
This question is the "Achilles' heel" of the Iraqi armed forces, says Adeed Dawisha, a political scientist at Miami University of Ohio, because there are potential difficulties in maintaining control of units either way.
"The problem is that when we leave and it's left to the Iraqi government or commanders, in the face of attacks either from [Sunni] al-Qaida types or Shiite Mahdi Army types, it's not very clear that these units are going to stay cohesive," says Dawisha, author of a 2009 political history of Iraq.
Preventing Conflict Up North
Some commentators are calling for the U.S. to keep more than 10,000 troops stationed in Iraq beyond December. Politically, however, that appears highly unlikely.
"No Iraqi politician wants to ask the U.S. to stay and continue what is now seen as a decade-long occupation," says Larry Hanauer, a senior international policy analyst at the Rand Corp.
Although a continuing U.S. military presence would be unpopular both in Iraq and the U.S., Hanauer favors keeping troops in the north of the country, to help prevent conflict between Arabs and Kurds.
The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament voted Thursday to send military forces into Diyala province — south of the Kurdish autonomous zone — in response to violence and claims of discrimination there.
"The reason that the north is such a flash point is that you've got Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces lined up facing each other," Hanauer says. "If one of them intervenes on behalf of their ethnic kinsmen, that could lead to a clash."
Some analysts are equally concerned about the possibility that authority could become too centralized — that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could become too authoritarian.
Although he governs as part of a coalition, Maliki has retained for himself control of key Cabinet ministries such as Interior. And there are signs that more independent institutions, such as the agency responsible for the oversight of elections, are falling under Maliki's direct control, as opposed to answering to parliament as a whole.
"Maliki's tendencies toward being a strongman are already pretty apparent," says O'Hanlon, the Brookings analyst. Maliki needs to be more inclusive, O'Hanlon says, working with other factions, under democratic constraints, to build up support for his positions.
One outcome of that, O'Hanlon suggests, is that Maliki might better be able to make the case that Iraq is not yet stable enough to provide security within its own borders. Iraq, O'Hanlon says, still needs outside help.
"It would be nice if Maliki could get to the point where he can ask us to stay, maybe under a U.N. peacekeeping mandate with others there, too," he says. "He's got to reach out to more folks than he is doing right now. If that happens, it makes possible a continued international presence, which allows more time for the Kurdish issue to be resolved."
But that may be unlikely. One of the promises Maliki made to his coalition partners, including anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, was that the Americans would go.