BAGHDAD — At a moment of triumph, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki stood before a room full of reporters recently and publicly fretted about Iraq's future.
After six years, U.S. troops were completing their withdrawal from Iraqi cities, the first step toward their complete departure by the end of 2011. The prime minister has declared today's deadline a holiday. And yet, Maliki acknowledged: "The challenge isn't finished. . . . What country in the world has such terrorist attacks?"
Maliki described a nation that may be too feeble to overcome its legacy of violence and corruption.
"I want [Iraq] to stand on its own feet," the prime minister said. He called on Iraqis to unite and do away with divisive, faction-based politics.
Maliki's extended question-and-answer session highlighted changes in Iraq in the last six years. Here was a leader engaging in a relatively frank public dialogue -- something that would have been unthinkable under Saddam Hussein, or in many of Iraq's neighbors even today.
That sense of openness is in part a reflection of U.S. efforts to build a more democratic system. Maliki's acknowledgment of the difficulties ahead is a testament to the mistakes on America's watch: a failure to avoid sectarian war or to quickly rebuild the economy and government services.
Among Iraqi politicians and foreign diplomats alike, there are doubts about Maliki's ambitions. He is credited with helping stabilize the country, but is he intent on building an authoritarian state? Or will a semblance of Iraq's messy, consensus politics continue?
There were no dramatic last-minute scenes of U.S. troops pulling out of urban bases to meet today's deadline. They have been slowly leaving for months. Iraqi forces may call on them for support, but it is unclear that they will. What is certain, however, is that after invading the country and guiding it through the post-Hussein era, the U.S. has stepped off the main stage. Iraqis will decide whether the country is run by an accountable leadership or a repressive and undemocratic elite and whether it slips back into civil war.
"Corruption and arbitrary use of force in violation of citizens' rights and human rights are still a great danger," said a Western advisor to Iraq's government. "Everything is in play."
Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, is a barometer of the tensions between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Muslims. Baghdad's heavily Shiite district of Sadr City has been the stage for the rise of the Mahdi Army militia and poisonous rivalries among religious parties. Together, they provide a glimpse into Iraq's future.
Bombed-out buildings are a reminder of a recent past when the city was convulsed by sectarian war.
But in January's local elections, the province's Sunni majority won control of the local government. The Sunnis' participation reversed a decision to boycott national and provincial elections four years earlier, which shut them out of power and paved the way for the struggle between the Sunni-based militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shiite-led security forces that lasted until 2007, when U.S. troops and Sunni fighters helped defeat Al Qaeda.
Although Maliki seemed happy to strike deals with Sunni leaders in a province such as Anbar, where Sunnis constitute a vast majority, it is unclear whether he will tolerate Sunni governance in a province with a mixed population.
Iraqi special forces, which fall under Maliki's control, and other army units have jailed elected officials as well as leaders of the Sunni fighters who rose up against Al Qaeda. Special forces arrested Hussein Zubaidi, deputy chair of the provincial security committee, in August. In May, after the Sunni coalition won the provincial elections, they jailed Abdul Jabar Ibrahim, who had been the Sunnis' top candidate. Both were accused of terrorism.
Sunni parliament member Abdul Kareem Samarrai says that because the special forces were involved, he thinks orders to arrest the officials came from inside Maliki's office. "Diyala is decided in Baghdad," he said.
Politicians in Diyala are more careful with their words. Hafith Abdul Aziz Jamaa, the deputy governor, says he could be targeted at any time. "There are powerful, organized people exploiting the courts and judiciary," Jamaa said in an interview. "We expected a lot of [our people] would be detained."
A member of Maliki's coalition in the Diyala provincial council, Issam Shakr Misr, defended the arrests. "It is not a jungle system," Misr said. "That is why [Maliki] strikes the outlaws."
Few people express confidence that the violence is over.
Abdel Rahman, 31, a Sunni who claims to have ties to insurgent groups as well as the U.S.-backed Sons of Iraq that helped tame them, said the two factions could reunite if Maliki's government doesn't reach out to the moderates.
"Because of the American departure, the extremists have started arranging themselves," Rahman said.