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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.

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