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How ready is Iraq for Obama plan?

US helicopters fly over Baghdad
All day long US helicopters patrol the skies above Baghdad to deter mortar fire

By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

In some ways Barack Obama's hopes of withdrawing US troops more quickly are already being realised.

At least in Baghdad, you see far fewer US soldiers and convoys on the streets these days.

Iraqi soldiers and police do more of the patrols and police an ever-expanding maze of checkpoints and barriers.

With so many different uniforms around, the problem is working out who you are dealing with when you are stopped.

So Iraqi security forces have already taken on a lot more responsibility.

But they still rely on the Americans for a lot of things, including some very sophisticated back-up.

While Americans were celebrating Mr Obama's triumph, a suicide bomber blew himself up, killing four Iraqi policemen

All day long, Apache attack helicopters and US-controlled surveillance drones circle above Baghdad, watching everything below.

If someone fires a mortar towards the government buildings in the Green Zone for example, there's a reasonable chance either the drones or the helicopters will spot the launch site.

Rarely do they get a chance for a second shot.

But the Americans are unlikely to be handing over this kind of technology to the Iraqis when they leave.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has been keen to demonstrate the greater capacity of his forces, but security experts here fear he doesn't realise how dependent they remain on US support.

The real 'surge'?

Mortars, bombs and shootings are of course much less common than a year ago.

But there are still incidents every day. While his supporters were celebrating Mr Obama's triumph, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside Baghdad's airport, killing four Iraqi policemen.

Baghdad newspaper vendor
Most Iraqis would like to see the end of the US presence on their soil
The fact that there is still regular violence reflects what kind of calm this really is.

It is not due to some kind of grand bargain between all the competing factions. There have been no peace talks or real reconciliation.

This relative calm is much more about all kinds of ceasefires and local deals, plus the Sunni Awakening revolt against al-Qaeda.

This has been the most important "surge", 100,000 former insurgents (compared with the 30,000 extra US troops brought in last year) who have taken US cash to join neighbourhood patrols in their areas.

Many will have killed US soldiers; now the Americans call them "Sons of Iraq".

But at $300 a month per fighter, it has been a cheap way to buy temporary stability.

Yet there's still little progress with plans to integrate them into the official security forces, because of opposition from the Shia-led government.

The government has been much less willing than the Americans to forget the past. It's hardly surprising that Shia politicians take this view of the members of the Awakening Councils, given that many are not only former allies of al-Qaeda but former Baathists too, from the former regime of Saddam Hussein.

This could turn out to be a new faultline.

"I kill the al-Qaeda with my guys. I kill the militia that works with Iran. Why are my Sons of Iraq no good?" complains Khalid al-Qaisi, leader of a neighbourhood patrol in Baghdad's Fadl district when we visit.

There will be "problems in the future, with my government", he warns ominously, if things don't change.

Deceptive calm

This uncertain situation is now encased in an incredible amount of concrete - the blast barriers that have become one of the signature images of Baghdad

Iraqi security forces in Baghdad
As the bombs in Baghdad get less powerful, the world is losing interest
There were plenty in place when I was last here a year ago. Now there are even more and journeys take longer than ever.

There are checkpoints with heavy machine-guns every 300 metres on many roads now - far more than you ever saw under the police-state rule of Saddam Hussein.

Baghdad is a city under complete military occupation. So the relative quiet here may be deceptive.

"People are still dying, bombs are still going off," a pharmacist I know in East Baghdad tells me. "So if you ask me if it's better, it's not. Better for me is a normal life. And this is not normal."

Because the bombs are not as big as before, the outside world has largely lost interest. But this is still a very damaged place.

Most Iraqis would like the Americans gone. But with things still so fragile there's a lot of nervousness about them pulling out more quickly - now that Mr Obama is in charge.

The trauma of 25 years of Saddam Hussein, followed by 5 years of US occupation, is far from over.

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