WASHINGTON - As the White House eagerly highlights the departure of U.S. combat troops from Iraq, the small army of American diplomats left behind is embarking on a long and perilous path to keeping the volatile country from slipping back to the brink of civil war.
Among the challenges are helping Iraq's deeply divided politicians form a new government; refereeing long-simmering Arab-Kurd territorial disputes; advising on attracting foreign investment; pushing for improved government services; and fleshing out a blueprint for future U.S.-Iraqi relations.
President Barack Obama also is banking on the diplomats - about 300, protected by as many as 7,000 private security contractors - to assume the duties of the U.S. military. That includes protecting U.S. personnel from attack and managing the training of Iraqi police, starting in October of next year.
The Iraq insurgency, which began shortly after U.S. troops toppled Baghdad in April 2003, is why the United States only now is entering the post-combat phase of stabilizing Iraq. Originally, the United States thought Iraq would be peaceful within months of the invasion, allowing for a short-lived occupation and the relatively quick emergence of a viable government.
Although the insurgency has been reduced, it will complicate the State Department's mission and test Iraq's security forces.
"Regardless of the reasons for going to war, everything now depends on a successful transition to an effective and unified Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces that can bring both security and stability to the average Iraqi," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In his view, that transition will take five to 10 years.
The question is whether progress will be interrupted or reversed once American combat power is gone. The United States will have 50,000 troops in Iraq when the combat mission officially ends Aug. 31; they are scheduled to draw down to zero by Dec. 31, 2011. Once the U.S. troops are gone, the State Department will be responsible for the security of its personnel.
Iraq watchers have their doubts. Kenneth M. Pollack, director of Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, says the administration is in danger of underestimating the difficulty it faces. "One of the biggest mistakes that most Americans are making is assuming that Iraq can't slide back into civil war. It can," Pollack said. "This thing can go bad very easily."