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The war in Iraq isn't over. The main events may not even have happened yet.

For reasons of nationalism, if Sadr can be drawn into the political arena, he may effectively become an ally of convenience to the Americans. "It should not be forgotten that the Sadrists are Tehran's historical main enemy among the Shiites of Iraq," noted Reidar Visser, an Oxford-educated expert on Iraqi Shiites. But others contend that Sadr is just lying low until the United States draws down its troops and declares its combat role concluded.

The role of Iran remains problematic. At this point, that country appears to be the biggest winner in the Iraq war, and perhaps in the region. "Iran's influence will remain and probably grow stronger," said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency specialist in Middle Eastern security affairs. "The Iranians have many contacts and agents of influence in Iraq, their border with Iraq is a strategic factor of permanent consequence and their role in the Iraqi economy is growing."

What's more, noted Toby Dodge, a British defense expert who was an occasional adviser to Petraeus, "the current Iraqi government is full of Iranian clients. You'll almost certainly end up with a rough and ready dictatorship . . . that will be in hock to Iran."

But many U.S. soldiers who have served in Iraq believe that the biggest threat to American aspirations won't be the Iranians but the Iraqis themselves. The Iraqi military is getting better, but it is still a deeply flawed institution, even with tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers keeping an eye on it.

Maj. Matt Whitney, who spent 2006 advising Iraqi generals, predicted that once U.S. forces were out of the way, Iraqi commanders would relapse to the brutal ways of earlier days: "Saddam Hussein taught them how to [suppress urban populations] and we've just reinforced that lesson for four years," he said. "They're ready to kill people -- a lot of people -- in order to get stability in Iraq."

In my last interview with him, Odierno countered this thinking. He believes that Iraqi commanders have improved and that they will no longer automatically revert to Saddam-era viciousness. "I think two years ago that was true," he said. "I think maybe even a year and a half ago it was true. I think a year ago it was a little less true. I think today it's less true." But, he added, problems clearly still remain, which is one reason the U.S. military presence will be required for some time.

But his hopeful assessment conflicts with the frequent statements of Iraqi commanders themselves. "When you got to know them and they'd be honest with you, every single one of them thought that the whole notion of democracy and representative government in Iraq was absolutely ludicrous," said Maj. Chad Quayle, who advised an Iraqi battalion in south Baghdad during the surge.

So, to address the perceptive question that Petraeus posed during the invasion: How does this end?

Probably the best answer came from Charlie Miller, who did the first draft of policy development and presidential reporting for Petraeus. "I don't think it does end," he replied. "There will be some U.S. presence, and some relationship with the Iraqis, for decades. . . . We're thinking in terms of Reconstruction after the Civil War."

The quiet consensus emerging among many who have served in Iraq is that U.S. soldiers will probably be engaged in combat there until at least 2015 -- which would put us at about the midpoint of the conflict now.

"What the world ultimately thinks about us and what we think about ourselves," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said to me last year, "is going to be determined much more by what happens from now on than what's happened up to now."

In other words, the events for which the Iraq war will be remembered probably haven't even happened yet.

Thomas E. Ricks is a special military correspondent for The Washington Post and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This article is adapted from his book "The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008."

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