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.
Of particular worry are places like Mosul where the counterinsurgency tenet of protecting the population relies on having enough capable forces to remain in areas cleared of insurgents so they can't come back. U.S. and Iraqi military officials doubt that the Iraqi security forces are fully there yet.
While last month's string of attacks killing more than 350 Iraqis have raised alarm bells, U.S. intelligence officials say they're worried more that the bombings could spark retaliatory attacks and set off another cycle of sectarian violence.
"It's the scope and character of the violence, the effect of the violence and the quality of that violence and where that violence occurs — from that perspective were still seeing progress," said one U.S. intelligence officer. He said the progress they're measuring is how effectively the insurgency can launch complex attacks, whether they reach their intended target, and how long it takes from planning to execution.
By all those measures, intelligence officials say, the network of Al Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated groups has been severely weakened. Although it's politically unwise as well as politically incorrect to say it publicly, U.S. officials generally believe that attacks are at "an acceptable level" of violence — a level that Iraqi security forces are capable of handling and that the Iraqi people seem willing to tolerate.
But with what has become a less immediate threat from the insurgency, security concerns are shifting further ahead — among them the worry of what will happen to the Sons of Iraq — the volunteer force that turned against Al Qaeda and aligned itself with the Americans and was a major reason for the success of the surge. In some places it is still the only effective security force.
The U.S. has now turned over funding of the SOIs to a reluctant Iraqi government. Maliki has promised to absorb 20 percent of the largely Sunni force and employ the rest, but with a budget crunch caused by lower oil prices and lingering fears by the Shiite-led government of armed Sunnis, it’s dragging its feet.
"In terms of numbers if (the attacks) stayed the same it would be fine," said one U.S. military official. "But we don't know what’s going to happen when you have that vacuum created by pulling 100,000 SOIs out and changing our role here fundamentally over the next 18 months."
More on Iraq:
The ground truth from Mosul
Searching for the exit
Analysis: As troops leave, Baghdad returns