BAGHDAD (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's plan to pull U.S. combat troops out by Aug 31, 2010 may avoid plunging Iraq back into chaos, but Washington will need to use adroit diplomacy to quell fresh conflict between rival Iraqi groups.
Obama announced plans on Friday to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq 19 months after he took office, fulfilling a pledge to wind down an unpopular war that divided Americans and unleashed sectarian bloodshed that nearly tore Iraq apart.
He said he would to keep a sizeable force of 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq to train and equip Iraqi forces and conduct limited counter-insurgency operations. Those troops must leave by the end of 2011, under a U.S-Iraq security pact.
"It's an absolutely necessary step for the normalization of Iraq," said David Claridge, Janusian Security Risk Management director. "It will be rocky, but vital for long term stability."
Claridge said militant groups like the Mehdi Army of vociferously anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, would lose steam, since they have defined themselves as opponents of an occupation that is now ending.
Mazin al-Saiedi, head of Sadr's west Baghdad office, said his movement would approve Obama's plan so long as he commits the United States to a full withdrawal by end-2011, as set in the security pact, which the Sadrists had previously opposed.
The withdrawal timetable underscores Obama's intention to shift the U.S. military focus to Afghanistan from Iraq, which he has called a distraction, and cut back on a war that has already cost the U.S. Treasury hundreds of billions of dollars.
"We were ready before Obama announced his plan," said Iraqi Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Karim Khalaf. "Our forces can face all the challenges. Nineteen months is no worry."
Analysts broadly agree.
"It is a realistic goal: there's been great progress in preparation of the army and police. The conduct of provincial elections (on Jan 31.) showed how security problems have eased," said Paul Wilkinson, chairman of St. Andrews University's Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.
But General Ray Odierno, U.S. commander in Iraq, and General David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command that oversees military operations in the Middle East, have cautioned that Iraq remains fragile and security gains over the past year could be reversed if U.S. forces withdraw too quickly.
They favor a 23-month timeline, according to one official.
In northern Iraq's troubled Nineveh province, al Qaeda and other Sunni Arab insurgent groups still frequently kill, kidnap and bomb, while rising tensions between the central government and the largely autonomous Kurdish region over disputed land and oil will require U.S. diplomatic muscle, analysts say.
U.S. officials say they have often acted as brokers to defuse knife-edge tensions between Kurds and Arabs.
"It's the number one problem," said Wilkinson. "Given Obama's and Hilary Clinton's emphasis on diplomacy, you can bet behind the scenes there will be enormous encouragement to get on with (resolving) that. It's not something that can wait."
Kurds are deeply anxious about the American withdrawal.
"The disputed areas need a third party. With politicians' mentalities, it's hard to see how to resolve this," said Jaffar Mustafa, minister for Kurdistan's Peshmerga fighters.
But Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of London, said U.S. influence on Iraqi politicians is often overstated.
He said a U.N. initiative on disputed territories is likely to do more to resolve that conflict than U.S. mediation.
Additional reporting by Wisam Mohammed and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad and Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil; Editing by Michael Christie and Dominic Evans