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Beginning of Iraq Endgame

When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates accepted President-elect Barack Obama's invitation to stay on as Pentagon chief, the lifelong Republican pointed to a pair of freshly inked security accords with Iraq as influencing his decision. The once-ardent opponent of a firm departure date from Iraq said the just-completed Status of Forces Agreement and companion strategic framework convinced him that debate in Iraq was no longer over when to leave, but rather how. The timetable "bridge has been crossed," Gates told reporters on December 2. "The question is, how do we do this in a responsible way?"

Passage of the accords has been welcomed from Baghdad to Washington, with some experts dubbing it the beginning of the end of the Iraq war. Yet for all the anticipation of Iraqi sovereignty, military analysts say the U.S. exit strategy may not be any clearer today (TNR) than it was before the SOFA's passage. "The challenge, of course, is that with the new Status of Forces Agreement ... we're going to have fewer resources devoted to Iraq and less authority there," says Brookings Mideast expert Kenneth M. Pollack. In a letter to U.S. troops (PDF) after the security deals were inked, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, warned that the agreements "will require a subtle shift in how we plan, coordinate, and execute missions throughout Iraq." Directions for how these changes will be implemented have not been passed on to U.S. troops.

There are also questions about the security agreements' legal longevity. Loopholes and the potential for renegotiation suggest withdrawal timelines may be amended, experts say. According to retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, whose reports on Iraq have become required reading for Iraq war observers, the...

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