President Barack Obama has inherited a changing war in Iraq.
A new security agreement with Iraq has started a countdown for the departure of U.S. troops. Fewer American troops and Iraqi civilians are being killed than at any time since the war began nearly six years ago, while provincial elections on Jan. 31 came off nearly without incident.
Although the trends have been positive, the final outcome in Iraq is still far from clear, and the country still faces myriad challenges.
Iraqi Return To Power
On Jan. 1 this year, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and members of his Cabinet attended a ceremony where they formally took over what had been since the U.S. invasion the American Embassy in Iraq, along with the so-called Green Zone.
Housed in one of Saddam Hussein's lavish former palaces, the embassy became a symbol of the U.S.'s imperial-style occupation of Iraq.
Maliki struck a nationalist note at the event.
"We consider this day our independence day. It is the beginning of the return of our authority. It is a great national day," he told the audience. "This palace is now the seat of Iraqi authority, and its return is a message for all Iraq that says Iraqi power is back in its rightful place."
Iraq is at a crossroads. There are still about 140,000 U.S. troops in the country, but President Obama has promised a rapid drawdown. The Status of Forces Agreement stipulates that all American troops must be out in three years.
The more than 600,000 members of Iraq's various security forces are slowly asserting their authority.
U.S. Troops See Improvement
Security is remarkably better, says Lt. Gen. Frank Helmick, who oversees the training of Iraqi security forces.
"In June of 2007, there were 1,600 attacks a week in this country. Today, there are roughly 125 attacks per week in the country," he says, calling it a "huge downturn."
And U.S. soldiers who are on their second, third or even fourth tour say they feel that the situation has improved.
Company commander Capt. Nathan Williams is with 118th Infantry in the Baghdad neighborhood of Hurriyah.
"Being over here for a whole year, and sometimes things get better and then sometimes they get worse, but it's definitely a good feeling for me, and I know for all my guys, to see things change. And it feels like we've actually accomplished something alongside the Iraqi security forces," Williams says.
Elections Mark Beginning Of Tests For Iraq
But those with long experience in Iraq are urging caution.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker says President Obama needs to be careful about how and when U.S. forces are withdrawn.
"Iraq is a far more stable place than it was 18 or 24 months ago. But there is still a ways to go, and clearly, I think, a continuing need for our security support," Crocker says.
Last month's provincial elections were largely violence free.
But the real test is whether the results will be respected. The 2005 vote was touted as a step forward for Iraq, but analysts now say it set up the conditions for Iraq's civil war by putting religious and sectarian parties in power.
Since January's election, there have been a host of fraud charges brought by groups that have in the past fought the Iraqi government and U.S. troops.
In Anbar province, tribal members who didn't do as well as they'd hoped said they were cheated. Over the weekend, a spokesman for the followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also questioned the fairness of the vote.
Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq says their concerns are real. "And if people lose hope," he says, "they will go to violence."
Iraqis Hold Mixed Views On U.S. Withdrawal
It's a fear that ordinary Iraqis share — though many are divided on the planned U.S. withdrawal.
At a cafe in Baghdad, Yassir Laith says the presence of U.S. troops has humiliated Iraq.
"They have to withdraw now. They don't respect our government. While they are here, there is no sovereignty at all. America invaded us but doesn't respect us," he says.
Sitting nearby, Dhiya Gazi disagrees. He says American troops still have a vital role to play here.
"I do not want them to leave yet. It is true that the security is back to a certain extent, but their departure would not be helpful at all," Gazi says. "The government needs to be more stable. I think if they left now, sectarian violence would take root again."
Iraqi Official: U.S. Can't Afford To Forget Iraq
The wounds of Iraq's civil war have not yet healed. There are still millions of refugees and internally displaced people. By and large, Iraqis who fled mixed neighborhoods have not moved back to them. Blast walls may be coming down in some areas, but the invisible lines that the recent bloodshed created between Sunnis and Shiites, Kurds and Arabs are still intact.
And there is still an insurgency, though degraded; al-Qaida in Iraq still operates in areas such as Diyala province, Mosul and Baghdad. Last week, a suicide bombing killed 14 people in Diyala.
Haider al-Abadi, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Maliki, says that even as U.S. troops prepare to leave, America cannot afford turn its back on Iraq.
"So the message would be for decision makers in Washington not to forget Iraq," he says. "Iraq is crucial for them, Iraq is crucial for its own people, Iraq is crucial for stability in the Middle East."