RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A reduced U.S. presence in Iraq does not necessarily mean reduced problems for the country. That's the view of the man we'll meet next. Weve been talking with a range of Americans about the formal end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq, which comes this month.

Yesterday, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill spoke of his time in Baghdad.

Ambassador CHRISTOPHER HILL (United States Ambassador to Iraq): Having arrived here when there were over 140,000 troops and to see now them moving down to 50,000 and to see our troops engaged in, I think, very important work in terms of training and advising the Iraqi forces, I think there's been a lot of progress. So this is not going to be an endless war. I mean, wars do end, and this one is clearly ending.

INSKEEP: That's Ambassador Hill, this week in Baghdad. And we will hear next from Tom Ricks. He's a prize-winning military reporter who's been on this program a number of times.

Tom, welcome back.

Mr. TOM RICKS (Center for a New American Security): Thank you.

INSKEEP: So are we near the end in Iraq?

Mr. RICKS: I dont think so.

INSKEEP: Why not?

Mr. RICKS: Im actually more optimistic about Afghanistan than I am about Iraq. I think that Iraq does look to me like an endless war, not necessarily one in which a lot of American troops are going to be fighting and dying. But I think we have unleashed a chain of events in Iraq and the surrounding countries that are going to play out for many years, perhaps even many decades.

INSKEEP: What makes Iraq even grimmer than Afghanistan, as you see it?

Mr. RICKS: Well, in Afghanistan, we do have a couple of aces in the hole. And the biggest one is that the Afghan people have lived under Islamic extremism and fundamentally, they dont want it to come back.

The problem in Iraq is none of the basic political questions facing the country have been solved, and this is one reason that weve gone so many months now without the formation of an Iraqi government.

But the basic questions are: How are these three major groups in Iraq going to get along? How are they going to live together? Are they going to live together? How are you going to share the oil revenue? What's the form of Iraqi government? Will it have a strong central government or be a loose confederation? What's the role of neighboring countries, most especially Iran, which is stepping up its relationship with Iraq right now, even as Uncle Sam tries to step down its relationship?

All these questions have been hanging fire in Iraq for several years, in fact before the surge.

INSKEEP: Aren't...

Mr. RICKS: All of them have led to violence in the past, and all could easily lead to violence again. The only thing changing in the Iraqi security equation right now...

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. RICKS: ...is Uncle Sam is trying to get out.

INSKEEP: Aren't these last few months helpful in some way? Ambassador Hill, in his interview, suggested that while Iraqis have gone months since this election without forming a government, at least they're talking and maybe making progress.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. It strikes me as whistling past the graveyard. I think what's happening in Iraq is everybody is waiting for Uncle Sam to get out of the way so they can get on with their business. No one wants get in a fight with Uncle Sam again. The American troops know Iraq well, the commanders know how to operate there, and they can smack down anybody who turns violent.

But President Obama has said we're not going to get involved in that. And so I think a lot of people in Iraq are simply keeping their powder dry.

INSKEEP: Is America really getting out of the way? There are still going to be 50,000 troops there, for example.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah. And actually, the mission becomes more violent and more dangerous with the passage of time, not less violent. I would much rather be on an American combat infantry patrol than, say, be with an adviser to Iraqi forces. That's a more dangerous position to be in.

Also, as you draw down American forces, you withdraw a lot of the forces that make things safe and/or limit the consequences of violence; for example, a medical evacuation of wounded people; intelligence - these are the type of support functions that get cut because youre trying to bring down the troop numbers but are essential to somebody whos wounded, to getting them treatment quickly and getting them out of the country.

INSKEEP: So is the United States not really getting out of Iraq at all?

Mr. RICKS: I dont think so. I think we are trying to shuffle our way toward the exit rather than bug out. I think the surge was successful in the sense that it enabled the Americans to sort of get out at least partly. It was not successful in that it was supposed to lead to a breakthrough in Iraqi politics, and that hasnt happened.

So I think because you have not had this breakthrough in Iraq, I think we're stuck there in many ways - on the ground, in the military, and in terms of aid -for many, many years to come. That's not necessarily a bad thing. I've been deep into study of the Korean War lately for my next book. This strikes me that it took 40 years after the end of the Korean War for Korea to become a thriving economy and a thriving democracy.

INSKEEP: And now wait a minute - because people have explicitly said with Iraq, that's not what we want. We dont want the Korea model, where there's an American Army that's positioned there for decades. But it sounds like youre suggesting that might actually be what's essential here.

Mr. RICKS: If I could get an outcome like Korea in Iraq, I would be really happy. I think that's a lot better than what we're possibly facing in Iraq right now, which is a resumption of civil war that quickly flows over the borders and becomes a regional war.

Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia - other countries in the region have made it clear that if they perceive a power vacuum in Iraq, that they will fill it. Iran, I think, is trying to fill it right now. They just put a new ambassador in. He's a general in the Revolutionary Guards, born in Iraq, raised in Iraq, but actually fought on the Iranian side in the Iran-Iraq war.

INSKEEP: People have been talking about the possibility of a wider regional war for several years. It hasn't happened, but it sounds like just because it hasn't happened doesn't mean you think it will never happen.

Mr. RICKS: Yeah, mega-dittos.

INSKEEP: That's Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Tom Ricks, now with the Center for New American Security. We have an added note this morning. An Iraqi lieutenant general says his army will not be ready if the last U.S. forces leave on schedule in 2011. According to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, the Iraqi general says his forces need U.S. help for another decade, until 2020.

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