Vice President Joe Biden is in Iraq to mark Tuesday's formal end to the U.S. combat mission. Though 50,000 troops will remain, tomorrow shifts the U.S. mission from a military to a political focus, with Biden joining the many U.S. and Iraqi officials trying to break the political deadlock that has persisted since March. Iraq's national elections earlier this year ended with neither Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki nor challenger Ayad Allawi securing enough voters for a ruling majority in parliament. Here are five challenges facing Iraq, where the dangers have become more political but no less urgent.

  • Navigating Path Between Collapse and Authoritarianism  The New York Review of Books's Joost Hiltermann worries "what might happen if, at this sensitive stage in the country’s development, one party is left out and turns again to insurgency, setting off a new round of civil war with unpredictable consequences for the region." On the other end of the spectrum is "the fear among many Iraqis that whatever party wins the right to form the government and appoint the prime minister will proceed to concentrate power around itself, using gaps and ambiguities in Iraq’s new constitution to its advantage. ... In Iraq, those who find themselves on the losing side realize that they stand to lose more than their formal positions and their perks and privileges. In the absence of strong institutions, such as an independent judiciary, that would encourage and sustain a peaceful transfer of power, their lives may be at risk as well."
  • In Political Vacuum, Anti-American Cleric Rising  Foreign Policy's Babak Dehghanpisheh profiles Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iraqi political leader, militia leader, and frequently anti-American cleric whom Dehghanpisheh calls "the king of Iraq." He writes, "Sadr -- feared by some, reviled by others and revered by a broad swath of Iraq's urban poor -- is now a kingmaker in Iraqi politics. ... The cleric is clearly following the Hezbollah model, creating a populist political movement backed by a battle-hardened militia." Sadr's political party did well in the recent election. The cleric can be a "kingmaker" in the electoral standoff between Allawi and Maliki by joining with his preferred candidate to form a ruling majority.
  • May Require Whole New Elections  General Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, tells the New York Times' Anthony Shadid that Iraq may need to simply re-do the complicated and sometimes violent national elections. Shadid writes, "While General Odierno said he believed negotiations had picked up and would prove successful, he predicted politicians still needed 'four to six to eight weeks.' ... The prospect of another election would probably throw Iraq’s already turbulent politics into even greater turmoil as the United States begins withdrawing its last 50,000 troops, scheduled to be out by the end of 2011. While the election in March was viewed as successful, the periods before and after included bitter disputes over disqualifications, recounts, legal challenges and score-settling that exacerbated still smoldering sectarian tensions. Even the suggestion of a new election underscored the ambiguity in an anxious and unsettled Iraq these days."
  • Shift U.S. Mission from Military to State Dept  Foreign Policy's Kori Schake looks at the long-term plan to make the State Department the lead U.S. actor in Iraq once the military completes its exit next year. "Part of the problem in fully civilianizing the mission in Iraq is that the State Department is deficient in its planning and programming efforts. They have not valued the skills that build Congressional confidence in budgetary rigor, such as producing a several year budget like DOD's Future Year's Defense Program, or the Quadrennial Defense Review (State has its first such review underway now) or a Program Analysis and Evaluation office that red-teams funding requests. Long-term underfunding of State operations has created a culture of doing the best you can with whatever money is available, which has been evident in planning for the transition in Iraq."
  • Iranian Influence in Iraq  In an interview with Der Spiegel, former Iraqi Prime Minister and leading candidate in the March elections Ayad Allawi worries about the region's prospects. "Everybody is frightened. Every corner of the region is frightened. Even America is frightened, even Iran is frightened. We are heading towards a situation which almost compares to the Cuban crisis in 1962. There is an umbrella of fear spreading above us. Everybody should do his utmost to prevent tensions. I am calling for an international conference on the issue of proliferation." When asked about the prospect of war over the Iranian nuclear program, he says, "It is a very high possibility." Allawi was 35 when the Iran-Iraq war began and 43 when it ended.