AS the last US troops begin to leave Iraq so that all are out by the end of the year, what sort of Iraq do they leave behind them? Does the American departure mean that Iraq might revert to turmoil or even civil war?
US officials are seeking to avoid any suggestion this is a military retreat. They even prefer to avoid the use of the word "withdrawal" and term the final pullout of a US army that once numbered 170,000 men in 550 bases as a "reposturing" of forces.
Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous country. Since the US invasion eight-and-a-half years ago, scarcely a day has passed when an Iraqi has not been killed or wounded. Casualties may be much less than at their peak of 3,000 dead a month in 2006, but they are by no means negligible.
Ethnic and communal loyalties frequently determine attitudes to the US withdrawal. Sunnis in Baghdad, victims of massacre and expulsion, feel one last safeguard against persecution by the Shia-dominated security forces is being removed.
But the Shia majority in the capital is more confident. Iraqi apprehensiveness is born of fears stemming from past butchery -- some 225,000 Iraqis have been killed since 2003 by one estimate -- as from any prospect of a return to mass killings.
For all the government's claim to have restored peace, it does not take long to be affected by the insecurity in Baghdad. I had just arrived at the al-Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone last week when a bomb exploded, killing two people a couple of hundred yards away in the car park of the parliament building.
The failure to eliminate insurgents has little to do with the presence or absence of the US army. Iraq's own forces number 280,000 soldiers and 645,000 police and frontier guards.
"The problem is that we have too many intelligence bodies and some of them are in communication with the terrorists," explained one senior official.
The problem goes deeper than this. It lies essentially in the fact that the divisions and inefficiencies of the Iraqi intelligence apparatus are symptomatic of the failings of Iraq's dysfunctional state.
As the US army departs this month, non-Kurdish Iraq remains a theoretically wealthy but ruined country whose physical and political wounds will take decades to heal. (© Independent News Service)