WASHINGTON — U.S. troops are out of Iraq's cities but not its future.
Even a best-case scenario is likely to feature an American role there for years — militarily as well as diplomatically.
That does not mean a permanent large U.S. troop presence in Iraq. Under a security deal struck with the Bush administration, American forces are to be out by the end of 2011.
But it's no secret that Iraq's security forces are not fully ready to handle even a diminished insurgency on their own.
Some senior U.S. military officers say privately they anticipate Iraqi setbacks in coming months, particularly if the insurgents regroup. But by partnering with American forces, the Iraqis stand a good chance of succeeding. That is why a number of U.S. troops will remain in the cities to assist and advise.
But most were gone Tuesday as Iraqis marked National Sovereignty Day with military parades and marching bands in Baghdad. In a sobering reminder that the violence was not over, a car bombing in a crowded food market in the northern city of Kirkuk killed at least 27 people.
It's not possible to know how long Iraq will need American help, but it could be well beyond President Barack Obama's current term. Much will depend on the pace of progress toward Iraqi political reconciliation. That is because the success of the Iraqi security forces depends as much, if not more, on their willingness to operate in a nonsectarian, evenhanded way as on their technical competence.
Diplomatically, the U.S. role will be less visible but still crucial. Even with declining levels of violence since 2007, progress toward political reconciliation among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds has been minimal.
Obama made clear Tuesday that while he expects violence to persist, the final outcome is an Iraqi responsibility.
"Iraq's future is in the hands of its own people," he said at the White House. "And Iraq's leaders must now make some hard choices necessary to resolve key political questions" and to provide security.
There are still about 131,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. They won't be fighting in urban areas any more, unless the Iraqi government asks for their help. Instead they will focus on securing Iraq's borders, keeping insurgents on the run in rural areas and training Iraqi security forces.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Tuesday he was hopeful, in part because Iraqis have embraced the U.S. urban withdrawal as a confidence booster.
"They're not ready for us to go yet, but they are ready for us to allow them to attempt to exercise their security responsibilities, and to me that's very encouraging," Odierno said.
Even in the most optimistic of circumstances in which Iraq muddles through its political and ethnic problems — and keeps chipping away at the insurgency — it will still need U.S. support. And the Obama administration has said it wants to build a long-term relationship with a key Arab state in a volatile region.
But if today's relative peace in Iraq unravels within the coming year, Obama will face tough choices, including whether to push back his announced timeline for ending the U.S. combat role in the country by September 2010.
Obama could not reinsert U.S. combat forces in Iraqi cities without Iraqi government permission, nor might he want to, even with the prospect of Iraq spinning into a new cycle of sectarian warfare. Obama came into office promising to end U.S. involvement in the war, arguing that Iraq's remaining problems are primarily of a political nature and cannot be solved by continued U.S. military force.
What would Obama do if Iraq reverted to major violence?
Stephen Biddle, an Iraq watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent analysis that a full-scale civil war could mean a civilian death toll in the range of 600,000 to more than 2 million.
"Given its role in precipitating the war in Iraq, the United States would bear special responsibility for such a catastrophe," Biddle wrote. He added that if the conflict spread beyond Iraq's borders it would risk a disruption of world oil markets and might derail prospects for successful Israel-Palestinian peace talks.
Robert Burns has covered national security and military affairs for the Associated Press since 1990.