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Searching for the exit

Obama vows to fulfill campaign promises to end combat operations in Iraq, but questions mount about what needs to be done before a pullout.

Children reach out to catch sweets thrown by U.S. soldiers on patrol in Kirkuk, 155 miles (250 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Apr. 20, 2009. (Ako Rasheed/Reuters)

BAGHDAD — Driving to the Baghdad airport, we pulled over to the side of the road for a U.S. convoy as anyone with a healthy fear for their life has done for the last six years in Iraq.

"Why did you stop for them?" asked an Iraqi security officer standing guard by the highway.

"They're 'expired,'"  he said, using the English word with something amounting to glee.

In many ways, what matters to Iraqis is not when U.S. forces will leave — an end date unchanged by President Barack Obama from the status of forces agreement signed under the Bush administration two months before he took office.

That agreement transformed American troops here from occupiers to invited guests in Iraq, obligated to live by the house rules. The important thing now is what American forces will do in the time they have left.

Five weeks into his presidency, Obama announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by 2011 — the same date as the landmark agreement that put Iraqis in charge of their own country again.

Obama’s plan though called for U.S. combat operations to end by August 2010, with combat brigades shifting to an advisory role. But few U.S. or Iraqi leaders believe there will not be some kind of continuing U.S. presence here past 2011.

In the Iraq war, it's counterinsurgency and intelligence rather than tanks and fighter jets that will win or lose Iraqi cities. And the Iraqis aren't quite there yet.

"It will take time for Iraq to be able to be self-sufficient in counterinsurgency," says one U.S. military commander.

What that means on the ground is that while the Iraqi Army has made dramatic progress in a lot of areas, there are concerns that Iraqi security forces will have more trouble with the finer points of protecting the population, reducing support for the insurgency and intelligence gathering that currently uses U.S. surveillance technology.

Part of that worry is a budget crunch sparked by lower oil prices that will make it difficult to expand the police force and could put funding for a key volunteer army in jeopardy. Despite that, faced with the reality of the war in Afghanistan and fears of Pakistan imploding, U.S. military planners have abandoned their preference for a "conditions-based withdrawal" and are dealing with deadlines passed down by politicians.

As has been the case for most of this war, the Iraqi government doesn’t want U.S. troops to leave and it doesn’t want them to stay.