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Iraq: Searching for the exit

BAGHDAD — Driving to the Baghdad airport, we pulled over to the side of the road for a U.S. convoy as anyone with a healthy fear for their life has done for the last six years in Iraq.

BAGHDAD — Driving to the Baghdad airport, we pulled over to the side of the road for a U.S. convoy as anyone with a healthy fear for their life has done for the last six years in Iraq.

“Why did you stop for them?” asked an Iraqi security officer standing guard by the highway.

“They’re ‘expired,’ ”  he said, using the English word with something amounting to glee.

In many ways, what matters to Iraqis is not when U.S. forces will leave — an end date unchanged by President Barack Obama from the status of forces agreement signed under the Bush administration two months before he took office. That agreement transformed American troops here from occupiers to invited guests in Iraq, obligated to live by the house rules. The important thing now is what American forces will do in the time they have left.

Five weeks into his presidency, Obama announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011 — the same date as the landmark agreement that put Iraqis in charge of their own country again. Obama’s plan, though, called for U.S. combat operations to end by August 2010, with combat brigades shifting to an advisory role. But few U.S. or Iraqi leaders believe there will not be some kind of continuing U.S. presence here past 2011.

In the Iraq war, it’s counterinsurgency and intelligence rather than tanks and fighter jets that will win or lose Iraqi cities. And the Iraqis aren’t quite there yet.

“It will take time for Iraq to be able to be self-sufficient in counterinsurgency,” says one U.S. military commander.

What that means on the ground is that while the Iraqi Army has made dramatic progress in a lot of areas, there are concerns that Iraqi security forces will have more trouble with the finer points of protecting the population, reducing support for the insurgency and intelligence gathering that currently uses U.S. surveillance technology.

Part of that worry is a budget crunch sparked by lower oil prices that will make it difficult to expand the police force and could put funding for a key volunteer army in jeopardy. Despite that, faced with the reality of the war in Afghanistan and fears of Pakistan imploding, U.S. military planners have abandoned their preference for a “conditions-based withdrawal” and are dealing with deadlines passed down by politicians.

As has been the case for most of this war, the Iraqi government doesn’t want U.S. troops to leave and it doesn’t want them to stay.

After a raid last week in which U.S. forces killed two Iraqi civilians, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told an angry public he would seek the prosecution of those soldiers. U.S. military leaders said they had Iraqi approval for the raid.

Just a few weeks after Obama announced his plan for an Iraq withdrawal, U.S. military officials signaled that the Iraqi government would likely ask American troops to stay in Mosul and Diyala Province. Iraqi security forces have improved dramatically but still rely on the U.S. for intelligence and logistical support and are unlikely to be able to hold those places on their own.

In the end, if a referendum on the U.S. troop presence in Iraq takes place in June as envisioned when the status of forces agreement was passed by parliament, Iraqis could decide to demand the pull-out of U.S. troops almost six months earlier than Obama himself has said they would be gone.

It will be a tough call — a recent spate of suicide bombings has sparked fears that al Qaida in Iraq is re-infiltrating areas where it had been pushed out.

Military officials say it’s too soon to tell whether the attacks are a temporary spike in violence or a more worrying, upward trend that could continue.

Although most Iraqis associate American troops with the inflammatory presence of armored vehicles and soldiers in their streets, their behind-the-scenes impact is much greater. In a counterinsurgency fight that relies heavily on intelligence gathering, Iraqis are still reliant on information obtained from state-of-the-art surveillance equipment that the U.S. wouldn’t sell them even if Iraq could afford to buy it.

“This is a war of intelligence and we have nothing,” a senior Iraqi intelligence officer told me recently in Basra. “We have no surveillance equipment, we don’t even have money to pay sources.”

The Iraqi government’s continuing mistrust of the paramilitary Sons of Iraq, who played a key role in the success of the surge, also leaves security here more precarious once U.S. troops pull out.

The group began as “the Awakening,” a movement in Anbar province in which tribal leaders turned against al-Qaida fighters they had been harboring and allied themselves with the U.S. The U.S. military helped expand the movement, now, 90,000-strong, and paid them out of U.S. funds. But the largely Sunni force has always worried the Shiite-led government which worries it could turn on them. Now that the Iraqi government has taken over, it seems that it’s only U.S. pressure that keeps the volunteer army on the Iraqi government payroll.

Ultimately, Obama’s desire to make good on his campaign promise to pull the troops out as soon as he could is colliding with the reality on the ground.  This war, frighteningly easy to begin under the Bush administration, is proving a lot harder to end.