AMMAN, Jordan - I'm on my way to a country that no one wants to hear about anymore.
When I was last in Baghdad, a year ago, Iraq stories dominated the headlines. Pundits were still arguing over the merits of the surge and Gen. David Petraeus' 2007 testimony to Congress.
That was then. In the last year, we've had a diminution of Iraqi violence, the election of Barack Obama, and the signing of a status-of-forces agreement with Iraq that calls for all troops to leave the country by the end of 2011. Iraq news has virtually vanished, to be replaced by headlines from Afghanistan and Mumbai.
But we still have nearly 150,000 troops in Iraq, and bombs still go off there. How our troops leave, how fast they go, and what they leave behind are immensely important. Otherwise, Iraq could return to haunt us and our next president.
So I'm going back to Baghdad to ask Americans and Iraqis how we can leave responsibly, and what's likely to happen after we exit. Will violence and jihadis return? Will Iran fill the political vacuum when we leave? Or will Iraqis be able to muddle through with some semblance of unity and sovereign control?
"There will be a lot of violence as the Americans leave," predicts Ali Allawi, a former Iraqi government minister and one of the smartest analysts of his country's political currents. "They will leave a country with a high fever rather than a terminal illness," he told me by phone.
What does he mean?
As I've written before, Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy dramatically improved Iraq's security. He took advantage of developments already under way by backing Sunni tribes who had once helped al-Qaeda in Iraq, but had turned against its vicious ways.
The surge troops alone would not have turned the tide. But they kept ethnic cleansing under check in Baghdad and surrounding areas, while a Sunni tribal surge crushed al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The demise of al-Qaeda in Iraq broke a vicious cycle of violence, in which the group had deliberately targeted Shiite civilians, sparking revenge killings of Sunnis. Once al-Qaeda in Iraq was down, ordinary Shiites dropped their support for their own thuggish militias, and the tit-for-tat murders diminished.
But there are still plenty of old scores to settle. And it's unclear whether the current Shiite-led government is willing to share power and wealth with Sunni Arabs or other sectors of society. In a society where power struggles usually meant death to the loser, compromise is an art that few have mastered.
U.S. power is waning with the signing of the status-of-forces agreement, Allawi said. The accord constrains what U.S. troops can do and sets a timeline for their departure. As U.S. power diminishes, Iraqi factions are already struggling over who will replace the foreign overlords. No one is certain whether that struggle can be contained by voting or will involve guns.
"The fault lines are no longer between Sunnis and Shiites," Allawi said. That brutal civil war has basically ended, since the Sunni Arab minority now knows it can't restore the power it once wielded under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
But the Shiite majority is splintering. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who once seemed incapable of governing, is increasing his power by setting up tribal support groups paid with government money. The largest Shiite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which now controls much of southern Iraq, is crying foul. Many wonder whether upcoming provincial elections will be marked by more assassinations. Iran will surely meddle, via Iraqi proxies, in the voting.
Nor is it clear what will happen to the Sunni Arab militias that the United States paid to fight al-Qaeda. They were supposed to be absorbed into government jobs; if Maliki doesn't do this, they could turn back to violence.
Meantime, Sunni Arabs and Kurds are at loggerheads over who will control oil-rich areas of northern Iraq.
Indeed, the operative word for Iraq at present is fragmentation. The country isn't set to divide neatly into three regions, as some predicted, but has dissolved into a plethora of armed elements who want to protect or expand their turf.
Allawi said he believed provincial elections set for the end of January were more likely to increase the fragmentation than to solidify political institutions. He predicts at least five more years of instability and killings, but not all-out battles. Some expect a coup, but he said he thought the army wasn't strong enough for that.
So the question is how U.S. troops can draw down without accelerating Iraq's disintegration. Right now, U.S. troops provide an element of stability, but they cannot knit the country together. In private, many Iraqis worry about their leaving, but in public nationalist sentiment is rising.
Obama has proposed using regional diplomacy to stabilize Iraq. He has pledged that one of his first acts as president will be to convene the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his national security team and "design a plan for a responsible drawdown."
I'm going to Iraq to try to figure out what that means.