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US-Iraq ties still evolving a year after war's end

| Monday, Dec. 17, 2012, 9:04 p.m.

BAGHDAD — A year after the last American troops rumbled out of Iraq, the two countries are trying to get comfortable with a looser, more nuanced relationship as the young democracy struggles to cope with political upheaval and the legacy of war.

The military pullout a year ago Tuesday did not end Washington's engagement. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, a fortress-like campus as big as Vatican City, remains a highly visible reminder of America's ongoing interest in Iraq.

Several senior officials have visited Baghdad during the past year, and America's role as Iraq's biggest arms supplier ensures continuing ties to the Iraqi military for years to come.

U.S. companies are hunting for Iraqi oil, and Chevrolet Malibus and Dodge Chargers increasingly cruise Baghdad streets still dotted with checkpoints. Iraqi Airways just days ago got its first Boeing jetliner in three decades, and it's waiting for dozens more.

But Iraq is at the same time busily pursuing its own interests — sometimes against America's wishes — as it seeks to balance its position and reestablish itself as a regional power.

“Since the U.S. withdrawal, Baghdad ... has attempted to re-think its relations with the U.S.” said Maria Fantappie, an Iraq analyst at the International Crisis Group.

Iraq's desire to go its own way was on display last month when authorities freed a jailed Hezbollah commander that Washington had wanted to keep behind bars. Washington considers Ali Mussa Daqduq to be a major threat to Americans in the region and believes the Lebanese militant was behind a 2007 raid on a military base that killed five soldiers.

Iraq meanwhile continues to forge ever stronger ties with Iran, Hezbollah's top patron, even as the United States and many of its allies work to isolate Tehran over its nuclear program. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to make his second visit to Baghdad soon.

American officials say their relationship with Iraq is improving nonetheless.

A number of senior officials have visited Baghdad in recent months, including Sen. John McCain and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Even so, the American presence in the country continues to shrink. The number of government employees and contractors working at diplomatic outposts around the country has fallen below 14,000, according to figures provided by the embassy in Baghdad. That is down from about 16,000 earlier this year. It is expected to shrink to about 12,000 in 2013.

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