AAM: "Much of the question has been taken out of U.S. hands in terms of boots on the ground."

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As part of the "Memo to the President" series, Michael outlines the decisions President-elect Obama faces in regards to removing troops from Iraq. The Iraqi parliament has approved an agreement to extend the time US troops remain in the country, but also included a firm date by which all troops must be out.

JOHN ROBERTS: An important and positive step, that's what U.S. officials are calling the approval of the security pact between Washington and Iraq's cabinet. The agreement will allow the U.S. forces to remain in the country for another three years. The United Nations mandate was due to expire at the end of this year. But now that the agreement is in place and we know that American troops can stay in Iraq for another three years, what does Barack Obama need to do during those 36 months? Our Michael Ware has today's "Memo to the President."


MICHAEL WARE, CNN BAGHDAD CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Mr. President-elect, the war in Iraq will soon be yours to command. It's a war that's weakened some of your enemies while strengthening others, and though it's a war in which America has not lost a fight, Professor of Middle East Studies Juan Cole says the solution won't be found on the battlefield.

PROF. JUAN COLE, UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN: If I were writing a letter to the future president, I would tell him to be diplomat in chief.

WARE: And to somehow deliver a miracle by bringing Iraq's warring factions together while containing the influence of America's enemies.

COLE: It is that kind of diplomacy that is needed if a military withdrawal is to be accomplished.

WARE: Getting out of Iraq will be come at a price, perhaps including an emboldened Iran. It's already well placed to fill any vacuum left by a U.S. withdrawal. From the moment of the U.S. invasion, Iran has sponsored powerful militia like this one and nurtured its ties with Iraq's most powerful political factions now running the government in Baghdad. U.S. military intelligence says Iran has contributed to the deaths of countless American soldiers. So America needs all its allies like these Sunni militiamen who've systematically assassinated Al Qaeda members. Mostly former insurgents, now more than 100,000 of them are on Washington's payroll.

Another ally are the Kurds. They helped topple Saddam but are now in dispute with Baghdad over oil and land. 140,000 American troops have been keeping Iraq's rival militia from an all out civil war.

COLE: There are these looming conflicts. A quick U.S. withdrawal with no diplomatic arrangements made for reconciliation could throw the country back into very substantial chaos.

WARE: A problem, as president, you must find a way to avoid.


WARE: So, John, that's what confronts the president-elect when he takes office. As we've heard, the Iraqi cabinet has now approved the terms of the agreement that would allow the ongoing presence of U.S. troops in that country. However, it's not entirely in the form that Washington would have liked. And it has to be said, it sharply curbs U.S. power there in Iraq. John.

ROBERTS: Michael, what do we know about a long-term strategic relationship between the United States and Iraq? Even after major combat forces have been removed from that country under Barack Obama's plan, what could that look like going forward? President Bush has suggested, you know, think North Korea or South Korea and Germany when you think about how long U.S. troops could stay?

WARE: Well, that's the thing. And that's the great dilemma facing the next administration is how are you going to fill the vacuum after your troops come home? Everybody wants the troops to come home. Yet that 140,000 combat troops on the ground are what's holding the country together, by keeping the warring factions apart. So the more you reduce the troops, the more you leave Iraq to its own devices.

And with a firm out-date imposed by the Iraqi government, that means U.S. forces could be forced to leave Iraq no matter what's happening on the ground. That could include bloodshed as a civil war erupts. It may include increased Iranian influence, it could even be a return of al Qaeda elements. Essentially, much of the question has been taken out of U.S. hands in terms of boots on the ground. So what will the president-elect and his cabinet do to put something into the breach, and it's certainly not something that we could look at and consider a win or a victory at this stage.

I wouldn't be putting any champagne on ice when it comes to the signing of this agreement, the departure of the American troops and what will happen after they leave. John.

ROBERTS: The important questions still to be answered. Michael Ware for us this morning in Washington. Michael, thanks so much for that.