The latest quarterly report to Congress by the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) raised concerns about Iraqi readiness to take full control when American forces leave. Overall violence has dropped sharply since the peak of sectarian warfare in 2006-7, but security forces are fighting a weakened but still lethal insurgency with bombings and other attacks occurring daily.

On February 12, a suicide bombing in Samarra killed 48 Shi’ite pilgrims and wounded 80 others, as they gathered to mark the death of Hasan al-Askari, the 11th of the 12 imams.  In the northern city of Kirkuk, at least seven people died and 78 were wounded by car bombs in the on February 10th.  Attacks on Shi’ite pilgrims last month near the holy city of Karbala killed dozens. A host of security incidents in recent months have plagued Iraqi Christians, and dozens of officials have been assassinated. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has demonstrated a continued ability to carry out terrible attacks such as the 16-bomb day in November that killed 70 and wounded hundreds.  A string of bombings in a two-week period last month killed more than 200 Iraqis.  Six American soldiers have died in Iraq so far this year, and 18 since the announced “end” of the U.S. combat mission on Sept. 1.

The Pentagon is quietly weighing options that could call for thousands of troops to remain in Iraq beyond Dec. 31 if Baghdad asks for them to stay. The deadline is required under a security agreement between the two counties, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not signaled he will not extend it (so far).  However, there are troubling signs.  Many key government positions in Iraq remain vacant – including the chief of security.   It is also unclear how many US “advisors” could stay in Iraq if there is no military presence.  The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has warned that U.S. diplomats and State Department employees and contractors may not be safe in Iraq if U.S. combat troops leave. A newly released nationwide poll, funded in part by the State Department, indicates that 57 percent of Iraqis think their country is moving in the wrong direction and that security remains the single worst problem.

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