WASHINGTON - Violence has largely subsided in Iraq. American casualties are at their lowest levels since 2003, and Iraqi forces are maintaining security in most of the country.
Is the war in Iraq over?
But from the battlefield, U.S. combat commanders are giving some surprising answers.
"Our ticket out of here was to develop Iraqi security forces. That has been accomplished," declared Maj. Gen. John Kelly, who commands 25,000 Marines and sailors in Iraq's western Anbar province.
"On a day-to-day basis, very seldom do they actually need us," he said of the Iraqi army and police units operating across his huge sector.
Speaking broadly of the nearly 5 1/2 -year U.S. war in Iraq, Kelly said in a recent telephone interview that "we're in the last 10 yards of this thing" but that only "economic development and jobs" can finish it, echoing the view of counterinsurgency warfare expressed by Gen. David Petraeus and others..
Kelly boasted of the prowess of the U.S.-trained and equipped Iraq army and police in Anbar. "I believe I could walk out of here tomorrow and these guys would do okay," he said.
Army Maj. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, who commands U.S. troops in northern Iraq, reports a "sharp decline" in the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq from Syria. He told Pentagon reporters last week that insurgents are largely "pushed into the rural areas."
Around Saddam Hussein's former power base in Salahuddin province, 2,000 former insurgents have simply surrendered, Hertling said. Some have been convicted in Iraqi courts and are serving time.
And Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, who commands all U.S. forces in Iraq, said this week that al-Qaida is "in disarray" in northern Iraq and has been "largely pushed out" of Baghdad, where attacks are down 83 percent from last summer.
Pentagon officials expect that further troop reductions will be announced next month when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appear before congressional committees. Petraeus, who will become overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East in October, is not expected to testify as he did last year.
There are doubters, however. One is Michael E. O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a recognized specialist on Iraq, which he visited this May and June.
Asked about the "end of the war" evidence, O'Hanlon asserted a gut feeling that it's not over yet.
"I can't refute the argument, but I'm not going to go along with it, either," he said. "The wounds still feel too fresh. There are people there who have proven their willingness to use weapons to advance their cause."
Much could indeed still go wrong.
One potential problem is a program under which the U.S. military command has hired young Iraqis, many former insurgents, as armed neighborhood security guards.
The idea was that these "Sons of Iraq" would be gradually absorbed into the Iraqi police or army.
But Baghdad's Shiite-dominated government has been slow to accept thousands of Sunnis, and many Sons of Iraq can't pass government literacy tests. As a result, almost 100,000 of these armed Iraqis remain on the U.S. payroll, earning between $180 and $300 per month.
Commanders like Kelly and Hertling have begun telling the Iraqis to find jobs, if they can, and that the Sons of Iraq program is coming to an end.
"In some cases they choose not to believe it,' Hertling said. But he acknowledged that there are few civilian jobs available.
The prospect of such groups of unemployed, armed and disgruntled Iraqis on the streets worries some analysts.
They "could become hostile to the central government," Anthony Cordesman, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a recent report.
That risk and many other uncertainties lead some to argue that, even if the firepower part of the war has wound down, there is still a need for U.S.-backed security.
At present, 146,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Iraq, of whom roughly 60,000 are assigned to the 15 brigade combat teams currently deployed there, down from a high of 20 brigades reached during the "surge" of troops last year.
The remaining U.S. military personnel in Iraq serve in support functions such as logistics, intelligence, maintenance, security, medical care and air operations.
Pentagon officials expect that Gates and Mullen will recommend that at least two combat brigades currently preparing to deploy to Iraq next spring be redirected to Afghanistan instead. That would leave 13 brigades in Iraq, and even that number is expected to be drawn down if current conditions continue.
Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, told a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention this week that he could "safely" withdraw those brigades in 16 months, and maintain a residual force in Iraq of an unspecified size. McCain, the Republican candidate, told the VFW that he also intends to "end this war" and bring the troops home, "but first I intend to win it."
However optimistic the commanders in Iraq say they are, they are reluctant to make predictions about a further troop cut.
"We are not making that recommendation today," Austin told reporters in a Pentagon video conference Monday.
But signs that Iraq has turned a corner are unmistakable, senior officers say, especially in the growing size and professional performance of Iraqi security forces.
For example, two Iraqi army divisions of mixed Sunni and Shiite troops, recruited and trained in Anbar province, were sent by the Baghdad government in March to southern Iraq and into battle with Shiite extremists.
After a faltering start, they decisively defeated the insurgents. The two units, the Iraqi 1st and 7th Divisions, were then sent up into Diyala province northwest of Baghdad, where they are chasing extremists fleeing the capital.
Those deployments demonstrated Iraq's capability in deploying a mixed Sunni and Shiite force to other parts of the nation, and showed that the Iraqi army could support forces in the field with fuel, food and ammunition, said O'Hanlon.
Back in Anbar province, violent attacks dropped from 33 per week in March to 14 per week this summer, Kelly said, even though he had lost those two Iraqi divisions and a U.S. Army brigade that was sent home this spring.
"Organized insurgency? I just don't see it any more," Kelly said. His own operations have devolved from regular firefights into quiet patrols and raids to snatch suspects.
"A knock on the door is about as much noise as we want to make," Kelly said.
David Wood's blog at baltimoresun.com/militarywatch
U.S. troops could leave cities as soon as June 30. PG 12A