New Year, Big Changes for U.S. Troops in Iraq

The New Year will bring change to Iraq. It is the year of the planned handover of control to Iraqi forces and the year of elections.

The coming year will bring restrictive new rules for American troops, and plenty of white-knuckle uncertainties as Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, and factions within each of those groups, jockey for power.

Nevertheless, senior U.S. commanders have told ABC News there are promising signs almost six years after the U.S.-led invasion of the country. Despite the challenges, this is a positive move and a transition they welcome, U.S. officials say.

Significant Changes, Some Not Clear

Coalition forces, now almost a hollow pseudonym for U.S. Forces, are around 144,000 and the burn rate is about $12 billion a month, depending on how and what you count.

The Status of Force Agreement (SOFA) goes into effect today, Jan. 1, and this will bring significant changes to how coalition forces operate in Iraq.

All combat missions must have the approval or "acknowledgement" of the Iraqi government. Warrants must be issued in advance of any raids. And American civilians and off-duty service members will now be subject to Iraqi law and can be arrested.

There are committees being set up to determine the rules and set up guidelines for soldiers. Senior leaders admit that there's some uncertainty and they will have to work through questions after the rules go into effect.

Soldiers on the streets of Baghdad may have to deal with tough legal questions. They often escort civilians, U.S. citizens who are helping rebuild Iraq. If Iraqi police, some of who may be militia, try to arrest the civilian then what do American soldiers do?

One of the options being considered is to not escort civilians off U.S. bases.

U.S. Troops Withdraw to Bases

By the end of June all U.S. Forces will withdraw to "major bases."

The "International Zone" or Green Zone will officially be under Iraqi control on Jan. 1, but the Iraqi government has effective control now. Checkpoint procedures have changed. The Combined Press Center is moving next month, and sometime early next year the Republican Palace, which once housed the U.S. Embassy, will be turned over to the Iraqi Government. Several roads will be reopened and another "green zone" will collapse around the new U.S. Embassy.

Several major U.S. bases have been turned over to Iraqi soldiers including Forward Operating base Callahan in Sadr City, Combat Outpost Dragon in Yusafiyah (in the area south of Baghdad once so lethal it was known as "The Triangle of Death"), and soon Camp Fallujah in al Anbar.

Iraqi Security Forces Now Total Over 1 Million

In many areas, especially the south, the only U.S. presence are its MiTT teams, or "Military Transition Teams," embedded with the Iraqi military. The requirement that U.S. forces withdraw to "major bases" by the end of this June will not include the MiTTs and there is some debate of what is a "major base."

The only area where there are active combat operations is Mosul.

There will be several large troop rotations in February, including most of the soldiers in the Baghdad area. The Fourth Infantry Division will be replaced by the First Cavalry Division.

The total number of Iraqi Security Forces now totals over 1 million.

Year of Elections

Provincial elections are to be held the end of January.

Local elections are scheduled across Iraq in the middle of the coming year.

A potentially explosive referendum on whether Kirkuk will be in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region is scheduled for July.

National elections will be held the end of the year. In many areas Sunnis will be participating for the first time.

U.S. Military Concerns

These include:

The use of violence as a political tool during the run-up to the provincial elections.

The use of violence to maintain power after the elections.

The collapse of a few poorly trained and equipped (or infiltrated) Iraqi security units.

The uncertainty of the restrictions of the SOFA, transition to Iraqi control, and how it might create opportunities for the enemy.

The large troop rotation in February and how it might create an opportunity for the enemy.

The unstable political environment and the infighting among both Shiite and Sunni power blocks.

The disintegration of the "Sons of Iraq" or Awakening Movement as a small part of this security force transitions to Iraqi Government control.

Unemployment and the lack of progress of the various "stability operations," now mostly run by private contractors, the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Department.

Growing friction between the Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government

Worries Over 'External Forces'

Iran could try to influence the outcome of elections or continue to support Shiite extremist groups.

There's also concern that Syria might allow more foreign fighters to cross its border.