Mosul, Iraq – Attacks have dropped dramatically across Iraq, falling by 80 percent since March, when US and Iraqi forces were locked in deadly fights with Sunni insurgents and Shiite militiamen. Today conditions in many parts of the country appear ripe for US forces to begin pulling back and for Iraqis to take the lead.
But in the northern city of Mosul, violence still rages. US and Iraqi forces continue to battle the latest incarnation of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which considers the city a key asset in its self-declared Islamic state. Mosul's location near the Syrian border, where foreign fighters cross into Iraq, adds to its strategic importance. The gains here are fragile, and neither Iraqi nor American military leaders can afford to see it return to insurgents' hands.
So when US troops withdraw to their bases next June under an agreement with the Iraqi government, there's a good chance they will stay put in Mosul, according to American and Iraqi officials.
"In this climate we can't do without American forces," says Mosul Mayor Zuhair al-Aaraji. "Our government is still too weak to fully support the Iraqi forces." Last Saturday Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of American forces in Iraq, said that despite the joint US-Iraqi security pact that calls for US troops to leave Iraqi cities, some battalions could remain in urban centers. "It's important that we maintain enough presence here that we can help them get through this year of transition," he said.
He acknowledged that Mosul is one place where Americans could remain. "There are still some issues in Mosul that we have to work through," said General Odierno.
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), passed by the Iraqi parliament in November after months of heated debate, does allow for some US forces to remain active in Iraqi cities, as long as Iraqis ask them to stay.
"No other SOFA agreement we have had in history gives us a timeline to remove ourselves," says one US official, who did not want to be identified. Military officials say the US troops will also likely be asked to stay on in Baquba, in volatile Diyala Province, and possibly parts of Tikrit.
"[Mosul] is a miniature Iraq. We have all different languages, different religions … for that reason Mosul is hard to control," says Iraqi Army Col. Dildar Dosky.
"I want the Americans to stay – our Army is young – we need a few more years," says Colonel Dosky, a battalion commander with the 2nd Iraqi Army Division.
Despite the constant potential for dangerous misunderstandings between US soldiers and an Iraqi population whose culture is still alien to them, the American presence here has served as the glue that keeps Mosul's fractures from widening.
Although Mosul is at about 60 percent Sunni Arab and 25 percent Kurdish, the majority of the soldiers deployed here are Kurdish. It's a difficult mix in a city that has large numbers of almost every Iraqi minority – a mix that potentially makes it a tinderbox for sectarian violence.
US soldiers on the ground, as well as their commanders, say Iraqi forces, which have more than doubled in number over the past year, have made huge strides since they arrived.
"For the first few months when we got here [it] was a fight every day – it was hard to get them to come out," says Sgt. Christopher Sherman with the 3rd Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment.
"Usually when we roll up now they've handled the situation on their own. For the most part these guys stay in uniform, they do their jobs, they search the vehicles – these guys are taking pride in what they're doing," he says, looking out on a rebuilt road that had been too dangerous for either Americans or Iraqis when his unit arrived more than a year ago.
Earlier this year, the US and Iraqi surge of troops that helped stabilize Baghdad pushed many insurgents north.
"At our height in Mosul, we had upwards of 50 attacks a day," says Maj. Adam Boyd, the regiment's intelligence officer. "We are now well under 10 and most days under five right now."
Officials hope provincial elections in January will help stabilize the city, where the insurgency has been fueled by unemployment and the lasting effects of dismantling the army and de-Baathification. There were an estimated 1,500 Iraqi Army generals in Mosul alone when the US dissolved Iraq's Army after it toppled Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Everyone in this province wants elections," says Major Boyd. "Even the insurgents insofar as they do not want to do anything to disrupt the support they may be able to obtain from the population. You can intimidate a population only so far and once you cross that line you no longer have a base of support to conduct operations."
While Americans are likely to remain here for some time, plenty of pitfalls await them as Iraqi forces will also take a larger role. Recently American soldiers became enmeshed in a gunfight amid the confusion of a wedding convoy.
The convoy passed an Iraqi checkpoint with children waving and dancing and drivers blaring their horns in celebration. Red plastic flowers spelled out "Love" on the hood of one of the cars.
Less than a minute later gunfire broke out. From nearby US Humvees, it was hard to tell where the shots came from. The US soldiers responded with a hail of machine gun fire at a rifle position that appeared to be an abandoned building.
When the shooting stopped, platoon leader Lt. John Parlee jumped out to sort out what just happened. No one was injured.
"One of your police was shooting at us," he angrily told his Iraqi Army counterpart in charge of the checkpoint.
Lt. Saed Mohammed took away the rifle of a young policeman who had been firing in the air to celebrate the wedding. Officials later said an insurgent fired at the same time from a nearby building.
"We're all trying to do the right thing but it's so hard to tell who's who," said US Army Sgt. Ryan Madris as the soldiers drove away from the checkpoint.