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Long, hot summer looms in Iraq

Alarm bells sound as US troops continue their withdrawal from major cities ahead of a June 30 deadline.

A resident of Jalawla, in Diyala Province, 115 kilometers (70 miles) northeast of Baghdad, watches U.S. soldiers patrol the town during a joint military operation with the Iraqi army on May 17, 2009. (Saad Shalash/Reuters)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — It's the middle of May and already close to 100 degrees. In the air-conditioned cool of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, U.S. military officials are looking ahead to a long, hot and dangerous summer in Iraq.

It is not so much the string of bombings in April — the deadliest month this year — and several big attacks already this month, including a bombing Thursday in a crowded Baghdad market that killed three U.S. troops and at least 19 others. In fact, U.S. intelligence officials believe that violence is continuing to decline in the ways that matter most, namely the length of time it takes militants to plan and execute attacks and the sophistication of their methods.

Rather, it's the uncertainty over what happens as American troops continue their pull-out from Iraqi cities ahead of a June 30 withdrawal deadline.

"We have a vote, the Iraqi government has a vote and the enemy has a vote," said a senior U.S. official. The enemy to a large extent is still a combination of Sunni insurgents with a sprinkling of Al Qaeda, Shiite extremists and Iranian-backed "special groups." But as Iraqi and American security forces make gains against the insurgency, some the underlying reasons for the ongoing fragility of Iraqi security become more apparent.

In Ninevah Province last week, the new provincial governor, whose largely Sunni Arab party was elected on a campaign to push back Kurdish expansion, was prevented from attending an event in a town protected by Kurdish security forces.

The event was a kite festival, and as clear as its relative unimportance was the resolve of the new governor to stake a claim to areas long claimed by the Kurds. The dispute was later defused, but not before it threatened to ignite the sort of Kurdish-Arab violence that officials fear could grow out of political tensions.

"That could have been the spark that we’re afraid of," one U.S. official said.

It doesn’t help that Ninevah's volatile capital is Mosul: Until recently, U.S. commanders had  assumed that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would ask American forces to stay there after the June deadline set in the Standard of Forces Agreement negotiated last year.

"This is a greatly enhanced political environment," said one senior U.S. commander, referring to the unofficial start of the campaign for Iraqi national elections expected in January. That campaign is thought to be a large part of the reason for Maliki’s categorical statements recently that there will be no extension of the SOFA, despite Iraqi military leaders’ insistence in some places that they still need the help of U.S. forces.

"We are developing a full range of options to be totally out of the cities," said the U.S. military official.

On the ground, U.S. commanders are warning troops that violence could escalate around the June deadline as insurgents try to send the message that they have driven American forces out of the cities.