RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
President Obama has inherited a changing war in Iraq. A security agreement with Iraq has started a countdown for the departure of U.S. troops. Fewer American troops and Iraqi civilians are being killed now than at any time since the war began nearly six years ago, and provincial elections just a week ago came off without incident. Good trends all, though the final outcome in Iraq is still far from clear. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro begins a series today, looking at some of the challenges still facing Iraq.
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LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: On January 1st 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 here, 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 this country. Maliki struck a nationalist note at the event.
Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) We consider this day our Independence Day. It is the beginning of the return of our authority. It is a great national day. 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraq is at a crossroads. There are still around 140,000 troops here, but President Obama has promised a rapid draw down. The Status of Forces Agreement stipulates that all American troops must be out in three years. The over 600,000 members of Iraq's various security forces are slowly asserting their authority. Security is remarkably better, says Lieutenant General Frank Helmick, who oversees the training of Iraq's security forces.
Lieutenant General FRANK HELMICK (U.S. Army): 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. So, a huge downturn.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when you talk to American soldiers who are on their second or third or even fourth tour, they way they feel is this place has improved. Company Commander Captain Nathan Williams is with the 118th Infantry in the Baghdad neighborhood of Huria.
Captain NATHAN WILLIAM (Company Commander, U.S. Army): Being over here for a whole year and, you know, sometimes things get better 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.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But those with long experience in Iraq are urging caution. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker says that President Obama needs to be careful about how and when U.S. Forces are withdrawn.
Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): 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 still a continuing need for our security support.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last month's provincial elections here were pretty much 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 charges of fraud by groups that have in the past fought the government and U.S. troops here. 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 Moqtada al-Sadr also questioned the fairness of the vote. Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlak says their concerns are real.
Dr. SALEH AL-MUTLAK (Sunni Political Leader): With all these problems, I don't think we are having the right democracy. Okay?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You don't think these elections were credible?
Dr. AL-MUTLAK: No. If people lose hope, then they will go to violence.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a fear that ordinary Iraqis share, though many here are divided on the planned U.S. withdrawal.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: At a cafe in the capital Baghdad, Yaser Lathe(ph) says Iraq has been humiliated by the presence of U.S. troops.
Mr. YASER LATHE: (Through Translator) They have to withdraw now. They don't respect our government. While they're here, there's no sovereignty at all. America invaded us, but doesn't respect us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sitting nearby, Dia Gazi(ph) disagrees. He says American troops still have a vital role to play here.
Mr. DIA GAZI: (Through Translator) 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. The government needs to be more stable. I think if they left now, sectarian violence would take root again.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The wounds of Iraq's civil war have not yet healed. There are still millions of refugees and internally displaced people. By-in-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 here, though degraded. And al-Qaida in Iraq still operates in areas like Diyala Province, Mosul and Baghdad. Last week, a suicide bombing killed 14 people in Diyala. Haider al-Abadi is a senior advisor to Prime Minister Maliki. He says that even as American troops prepare to leave, America cannot afford to turn its back on Iraq.
Mr. HAIDER AL-ABADI (Senior Advisor to Maliki): So the message would be for decision makers in Washington not to forget Iraq. Iraq is crucial for them. Iraq crucial for its own people. Iraq is crucial for the civility in the Middle East.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.