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Heading for Iraq

I'm going back to the country that no one wants to hear about anymore.

It's amazing. the last time I was there, just a year ago, Iraq was still all over the headlines. People were still debating Gen. Petraeus' testimony about the surge.

But now Iraq has dropped from the radar. In large part that's because the hideous violence has ebbed. (People still debate whether the "surge" worked or not - I say it was Petraeus' strategy that worked.) In larger part, it's because Afghanistan has been going south and more U.S. soldiers are dying there than in Iraq.

It's also because Obama has won, and many people assume that means we're outa there soonest. Obama has been helped by the fact that the Iraqis themselves just voted for a status of forces accord with the United States that sets a deadline for all U.S. troops to get out by the end of 2011. And the Bush administration - which was wholly anti-timeline - agreed to that date certain.

But guess what? Iraq isn't over. We still have around 140,000 troops in Iraq, some of them are still being killed, and Iraqi civilians are still dying. Iraq is fragmented, with all kinds of new enmities between sects and ethnic groups, and no one's sure whether Iraqis can now solve those quarrels by ballot not bullet.

How we leave will have a lot to do with how Iraq winds up. Right now we are still the barrier keeping many of those groups from each other's throats. If Iraqi fighting flares up again, will al-Qaeda in Iraq return? Will Iran move into the vacuum created when we leave (Iran is already a major influence on Iraq but could become much more so)?

Will Iraq become a model for the Middle East or a monument to failed U.S. policy? Will Obama's attention be dragged back to an Iraq mess, when he wants to focus on South Asia?

I'm going back to find out. I'm also going back because I have a lot of Iraqi friends and want to know they hope for and what they fear. After all, as Colin Powell famously said, when you break it, you own it, and we broke Iraq, so we have some responsibility for what happens to the folks whose lives we upended.  My Iraqi driver is still getting death threats.

You'll read what I learn.

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