The Next Iraq Phase

America's future role in Iraq is being shaped by two discussions underway here and in Washington. One is a Bush administration debate about the timetable for reducing U.S. troops this year, and the other is a U.S.-Iraqi negotiation about the status of the residual American force that will remain after 2008.

The premise of these discussions is that U.S. policy in Iraq is finally working and that a framework must be found to preserve the security gains of the past year. But this military planning fits awkwardly with the political mood in the United States and Iraq -- where the publics remain skeptical about U.S. military occupation, even when it's finally achieving its goals.

Progress here is undeniable, both in terms of security on the ground and in the political bargaining among Iraq's parties and ethnic groups. You see this on the streets, in the faces of people you meet in shops and teahouses. The Iraqis I met last weekend didn't complain about security but about delivery of services. There are also hints of pragmatism among Iraqi politicians, who are finally passing legislation after three years of political deadlock.

The question is whether this Iraqi renaissance can continue as the United States reduces its surge of combat troops. The Iraqi military is still far from ready to take over the country's security. The military's transport systems won't be finished until the summer of 2009, and it could be two years before Iraq's military can operate fully independent of U.S. forces.

Gen. David Petraeus and other top military officials have begun debating what the post-surge level of U.S. troops should be. The commanders want a pause for assessment after July, when the last of the five additional combat brigades that made up the surge is withdrawn and the U.S. troop presence returns to its prior level of 15 brigades, or about 130,000 soldiers.

The debate centers on how long this pause should last and whether it should be followed by more troop cuts. Petraeus, who as field commander doesn't want to risk losing his hard-won gains, is said to favor an assessment period of more than three months, and perhaps leaving the full 15 brigades in place through the end of 2008. President Bush, who would like to leave office next January with Iraq as secure as possible, may also oppose further troop reductions after July.

A contrary view favors a continuing process of withdrawals that is politically sustainable in both Iraq and America. Advocates of this view, who include some top Pentagon and Central Command officials, worry that maintaining troops at the full, pre-surge level of about 130,000 will stress the U.S. Army to the breaking point.

There's also the political risk factor: If Bush maintains a large force until Inauguration Day 2009, the next president might order a drastic switch in policy -- with big, sudden troop cuts. That could have a disastrous effect on Iraqi security. Thus, some Pentagon and Centcom officials have argued for a steadier glide path of troop reductions that would allow realistic planning by the U.S. and Iraqi militaries for operations in 2009 and beyond.

The U.S. debate will come to a head when Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker give their next progress report to Congress, probably in early April.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials are beginning to negotiate with the Iraqis the legal rules under which U.S. forces will operate in 2009 and beyond. The goal is a new "Security Framework Agreement" to replace the current U.N. mandate that expires at the end of this year. Among the tricky issues are the legal authorities for U.S. troops to conduct operations against al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed militias; permission for the United States to continue holding Iraqi detainees, who currently number about 24,000; and U.S. rights to operate military bases in Iraq. The Iraqis are planning to hire U.S. lawyers who have experience negotiating such "status of forces agreements."

All this planning sounds sensible enough when you listen to top U.S. and Iraqi officials here. Their goal is a stable Iraqi state, which is less a pipe dream now than it was a year ago.

The problem is that the security discussions are taking place against a political backdrop of impatient, war-weary Iraqis and Americans. The Iraqis want a restoration of full sovereignty, and they aren't likely to tolerate for much longer the American-run prisons or U.S. soldiers kicking down doors.

Unless the planners take that political reality into account -- and reassure Iraqis and Americans alike that most U.S. troops will gradually be coming home -- they may be creating a new version of Mission Impossible.

David Ignatius