Samarra, where the U.S. military closed a key base this fall, in many ways embodies the Iraq that American forces are leaving behind as the troop drawdown begins in earnest. The fighting here, as in much of the country, has ebbed. Iraqi troops are indisputably in charge. Sectarian and ethnic divisions remain deep, but political feuds and fights for power are, by and large, not being waged on the street.
As the American military footprint thins out in places such as Samarra, many U.S. soldiers are returning home making a strong case that they are leaving behind a country with a fighting chance. Just how good Iraq's odds are remains an open question ...
Depending on whom you ask, this phase is the preface of peace -- or a prelude to the fight.
"If it doesn't somehow reach an equilibrium, those who are have-nots could find themselves with no alternative except for violence," said Lt. Col. Samuel Whitehurst, an infantry battalion commander whose unit departed Samarra a month ago.
My forecast for Iraq's future: renewed violence between Sunni and Shiite as the U.S. funding that has temporarily bought peace dwindles. And any pretense of democracy will vanish. In the end we will have replaced one authoritarian state with another, at enormous cost.