President-elect Barack Obama will face steep challenges turning his campaign promises into ground-truth realities in Iraq, according to experts.

During his nearly two-year campaign for the presidency, Obama talked tough about setting a 16-month deadline for pulling most U.S. combat forces out of Iraq, calling it the "wrong battlefield" and arguing that doing so would allow the United States to shift more soldiers and resources to Afghanistan, which he considers the frontline in the war on terror.

Obama opposed the Iraq war even before he was elected to the Senate in 2004, and has argued that the tight deadline would force the Iraqis to take the necessary steps toward political reconciliation and to assume responsibility for their own security and stability.

"Ending this war will be my first priority when I take office," Obama said in an August 2007 speech at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "There is no military solution in Iraq. Only Iraq’s leaders can settle the grievances at the heart of Iraq’s civil war. We must apply pressure on them to act, and our best leverage is reducing our troop presence."

Obama made the speech just as the U.S. troop surge in Iraq was hitting its peak. Although he has acknowledged since then that the surge has worked "beyond our wildest dreams," he has continued to assert that the surge has not produced the political reconciliation among Iraqis that was its larger goal.

"The argument was and continues to be: When are we going to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis for their own country?" he said, speaking Sept. 4 at a rally in Lancaster, Pa. "When are they going to resolve their political differences?"

Obama’s plan would leave a "residual force" of U.S. troops in Iraq to conduct counterterror missions, protect U.S. servicemembers who remain in the country and train Iraqi security forces, as long as the government continues to make political progress.

Obama’s timeline for withdrawal is more in line with the timetable for U.S. force reductions sketched out under a draft long-term security pact reached just two weeks ago between U.S. and Iraqi negotiators. Under the agreement, U.S. forces would have to pull out of Iraqi cities and back to their bases by June 2009 and leave the country by the end of 2011, unless the Iraqis ask otherwise.

Scenario changes

But that deal is now in limbo. The Iraqis want changes, and it is unclear if they and the White House will agree on a new version before Dec. 31, when the current U.N. mandate expires. If the mandate expires before a deal is reached, U.S. forces in Iraq would have to cease operations.

If a deal is not reached, then it is likely that either the Iraqis or the Americans will ask the U.N. to extend the mandate, rather than risk the chaos that would almost surely ensue if U.S. forces pull back.

The Iraqis "clearly want U.S. help still," said Stephen Biddle, a former professor at the U.S. Army War College and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There has to be a legal basis for the U.S. occupation."

Biddle believes that even if a security pact is not reached before Bush leaves office, or even if the U.N. mandate is not extended, then U.S. and Iraqi officials will still manage to hammer out a series of "escape clauses" that will allow U.S. forces to operate in the country, if security deteriorates.

"It’s in the Iraqis’ interest to do so," Biddle said.

But pressure is building for most U.S. forces to leave.

"The only pressure now is to accelerate (a withdrawal)," said Winslow Wheeler, a national security expert at the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "The Iraqis have made it very clear that they want us out."

More than 4,000 U.S. servicemembers have already lost their lives in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Another 30,000 have been wounded. Combined with Afghanistan, the cost of the Iraq war is expected to reach $800 billion by the end of this year. According to polls, more than half of Americans say they no longer support the war.

Yet leaving Iraq may be easier said than done. As Obama assumes the presidency, he faces a number of challenges other than setting a timetable that will ultimately govern how and when U.S. forces leave Iraq.

Tensions could flare

While sectarian violence has subsided, tensions between majority Shiite Muslims and minority Sunnis could flare again, especially if steps toward political reconciliation falter.

And the fate of the northern city of Kirkuk and the oil-rich area around it has yet to be decided. Kurds want Kirkuk incorporated into their own semi-autonomous region in the northern part of the country. But Arabs in the rest of Iraq, especially the Sunnis, are loath to let it go.

A fraying of the fragile tensions inside the country on any of these issues could send Iraq spiraling back into chaos. Given the tenuous state of affairs, adopting a 16-month timetable for withdrawal could be too risky, some analysts argue.

"To think that all wounds are healed, all trust rebuilt, would be optimistic in the extreme," said Michael E. O’Hanlon, who specializes in U.S. national security policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw much of the turnaround in Iraq and is now in charge of U.S. Central Command, has warned Congress that any security gains made so far in Iraq are "fragile" and "reversible."

Iraqi forces are still heavily dependent on the U.S. military for day-to-day operations, especially for logistics support.

In a number of major clashes with militants over the years, several units have refused to fight, and some have even switched sides.

If U.S. forces begin leaving Iraq before the country’s security forces can operate fully on their own, "then I think you’re going to see the major players in Iraq pulling back and retrenching for the start of another round of major combat," Biddle said.

And given the bloody history of Iraq, it’s entirely plausible that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki or a successor could make a grab for power and set himself up as dictator — as Saddam Hussein did 30 years ago.

Neither of those are scenarios experts want to contemplate.

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