Iraq's future remains clouded

Soldiers of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division, based at Fort Benning, Ga., were the first to set foot in Iraq as U.S. ground forces moved across the border from Kuwait on March 20, 2003.

BAGHDAD — Six years after the U.S. invaded Iraq, the end of America's costly mission is in sight.

But the future of this tortured country is much less clear.

With violence down sharply, most Iraqis feel more secure than at nearly any time since the war began March 20, 2003, March 19 in the United States.

But violence still continues at levels that most other countries would find alarming. Last week, suicide bombers killed a total of 60 people in two separate attacks in the Baghdad area, and an American soldier was fatally injured Monday on a combat mission in the capital.

Fighting still rages in Mosul and other areas of the mostly Sunni north. Competition for power and resources among rival religious and ethnic groups is gearing up, even as the U.S. military's role winds down.

Both the Sunni and Shiite communities face internal power struggles that are likely to intensify ahead of elections late this year. Sunni-Shiite slaughter has abated, but reconciliation remains elusive.

"If Iraqi leaders don't reconcile and work together, the situation will deteriorate," veteran Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said. "There is no harmony among Iraqi leaders. Their work depends on their mood."

At the same time, U.S. combat troops are due to leave by September 2010, with all American soldiers gone by the end of the following year.

In the final stage of the war, America's challenge will be to prevent ethnic and sectarian competition from exploding into violence on the scale that plunged the nation to the brink of civil war two years ago.

U.S. commanders successfully lobbied President Barack Obama to maintain a substantial combat force in Iraq through parliamentary elections at the end of the year in hopes of curbing violence as the country's religious and ethnically based parties compete for power.

Damage control is a far less ambitious goal than the Bush administration foresaw when the U.S. launched the invasion with an airstrike on Dora Farms in southern Baghdad in a failed attempt to kill Saddam Hussein.

Missing Saddam in the opening moments of the conflict set the tone for what became a war of missteps and disappointments before the tide turned in 2007.

The war was launched to deny Saddam weapons of mass destruction; and when events proved he had none, the goal shifted to establishing a Western-style democracy in the heart of the Middle East. That goal was only partially achieved.

Now, the U.S. hopes that it can leave without the country disintegrating into chaos. The Americans hope Iraq will be strong enough to fend off interference by neighboring countries, notably Iran, and protect itself from a resurgent al-Qaida.

Prospects for a reasonably stable Iraq are certainly brighter than they were before the U.S. troop surge of 2007, when car bombs shook Baghdad daily and gangs of Sunni and Shiite gunmen ruled the streets.

Violence is down 90 percent since early 2007. In February, the U.S. military recorded 367 attacks nationwide, compared with 1,286 for the same month last year, according to Lt. Col. Brian Tribus, a U.S. spokesman.

As of Wednesday, there have been at least five deaths of U.S. servicemen so far in March, the lowest daily death toll since the war began.

Many Iraqis fear that the relative calm simply means threat groups are lying low until the Americans leave.

"Iraq will face difficult economic situations for long time. ... The political process is still at a crossroads," Iraq's Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, said last week. "The war is not over but it has just begun."