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Troops may withdraw from Iraq, but issues will remain

Exit strategy is still forming

The sixth year of the Iraq war began with a grim milestone, but ended with the first concrete plan for a U.S. withdrawal and a feeling that the nation’s involvement in the war was winding down.

In March 2008, the U.S. death toll in the war eclipsed 4,000. By November, Iraq’s parliament had approved a security agreement calling for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from cities by the summer of 2009, and to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

And on Feb. 27, 2009, President Barack Obama stood before Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and pledged that "By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end."

The withdrawal plan would reduce the number of troops from the current 142,000 to between 35,000 and 50,000 by the summer of next year. Those troops would have a threefold mission: training Iraqi forces; conducting counterterrorism missions; and protecting American military and civilian personnel.

Dubbed a "transitional force," those troops would be gone by the end of the following year.

The past year in Iraq was not without problems. In March 2008, Iraqi forces launched large-scale offensives against Shiite militias in Basra and Baghdad, sparking a renewed round of fighting.

Turkey launched airstrikes against Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq in May, sparking worries about another ethnic rift in the region.

And midsummer saw a string of suicide attacks by females apparently recruited by al-Qaida in Iraq and other militant groups.

But for the most part, the events of the past year built on the security gains achieved by the "surge," the recruitment of former fighters into "Sons of Iraq" groups and the cease-fires ordered by some Shiite militant leaders.

The last of the "surge" brigades left Iraq in July. And in September, command of the war effort was handed from Gen. David Petraeus — who became U.S. Central Command chief — to Gen. Ray Odierno.

Odierno had spent much of the previous year putting into effect on the ground the revamped U.S. counterinsurgency strategy.

January’s provincial elections went off with a minimum of violence, but key issues such as the future status of Kirkuk remained undecided.

As the war enters its seventh year more challenges are ahead. But the end appears to be in sight.

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