The war in Iraq is not over, and the troops are not coming home any time soon.
Despite the hoopla over the American military withdrawing from Iraq's cities
by Tuesday's June 30 deadline, 131,000 U.S. military personnel remain in Iraq, more than twice as many as are fighting in Afghanistan.
That means no rest for soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors – or for their families. It means Americans will continue to fight and die in Iraq. It means no tidy ending to a war that has dragged on for more than six years, even after President Barack Obama vowed as a candidate last year to "end the war.''
Quietly, over the past eight months, U.S. troops gradually had withdrawn from many Iraqi cities where today's relative calm has been hard won, including the former battlegrounds of Fallujah, Ramadi, Karbala and Najaf. The final withdrawals of large units from Baghdad and Mosul were completed a few days ago.
And yet, 20 percent of the battle-scarred Americans
who were manning checkpoints and running patrols in Iraq's cities a few months ago are still on duty there and will remain as trainers and advisers. They are still staffing checkpoints and walking street patrols with Iraqi soldiers, and they're risking roadside bombs to run truck convoys, distributing food, ammunition and spare parts to the hundreds of small urban outposts where American advisers live and work.
In Baghdad and other cities, secretive American hunter-killer teams today are operating with Iraqi commandos to track down and capture or eliminate terrorist leaders.
Just outside the cities, more than 100,000 soldiers and other American troops are engaged in combat operations in violence-prone belts around Iraq's urban areas.
U.S. troops are still guarding 10,826 hard-core Iraqi prisoners. Americans are flying combat
, reconnaissance and airlift missions in and around the country.
And across Iraq, American military personnel are providing medical, intelligence and logistics support for Iraq's army and national police, jobs that Americans will fill for the foreseeable future.
"I have a lot of hope that Iraq will be able to continue to move forward, and today gives me more hope,'' Gen. Ray Odierno
, the top U.S. commander, told reporters in a live video conference from Baghdad Tuesday.
Despite a dramatic reduction in violence, al-Qaeda
and other sectarian groups continue to mount attacks, mostly on civilians. Some involve Explosively Formed Projectiles (EFPs), a deadly form of roadside bomb supplied by Iran
, U.S. officials said.
Odierno said he sees none of the vicious sectarian reprisal killings that were tearing Iraq apart just 18 months ago.
But he added: "There's still going to be bumps in the road, still going to be violence.''
Odierno plans to recommend that Washington keep the number of U.S. forces in Iraq between 120,000 and 130,000 through the Iraqi elections scheduled for January. Then, the goal is to reduce the U.S. troop level to a "residual'' force of around 50,000 by Aug. 31, 2010, when a U.S.-Iraq agreement
calls for an end to all U.S. combat operations in the country.
All American military personnel must leave Iraq by the end of 2011, according to the agreement. Many observers
believe that requirement will have to be rewritten or reinterpreted to allow, for example, military attaches and Marine guards at the U.S. embassy, at the least.
For now, Odierno said, "The Iraqi people want us to move into the background [but] they are not [psychologically] ready yet for us to leave.''
That's bad news for the rest of the Army, which is still struggling under the strain of providing fresh troops for the two wars and a variety of other missions, such as defending Korea
Once the unglamorous orphan of the Defense Department – as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld once contemplated a drastic reduction
of its ranks – the Army has grown dramatically since Sept. 11, 2001. Its budget has leaped from $68 billion to $220 billion and it has grown by 74,000 soldiers.
But the strain deepens.
The Army is "a tired and stretched force, " its vice chief of staff, Gen. Peter Chiarelli
, remarked recently. There is a continuing demand for combat troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and a growing requirement in both conflicts for "support'' personnel in intelligence, military police, aviation, artillery and logistics.
Although the Army has reduced combat tours to 12 months, two units in Iraq are finishing out 15-month tours.
And while the Army has vowed to end the practice of "stop loss''
-- which it uses to fill the ranks by retaining soldiers on active duty beyond their service term -- more than 11,000 soldiers are on stop-loss status today.
Increased numbers of soldiers are struggling with drug abuse and depression, Chiarelli reported to Congress this spring.
Suicides within the military have risen sharply, with 82 reported so far this year, compared with 51 for the same period in 2008.
"We continue to be consumed by the demands of the current fight,'' Chiarelli said. The current level of fighting "does not appear likely to improve significantly for the foreseeable future.''