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Originally published Friday, August 20, 2010 at 2:36 PM

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Parsing the U.S. presence in Iraq

The departure of U.S. combat troops from Iraq is good news, but it by no means ends the American presence in the country. The U.S. State Department will be in charge of private security forces and training of Iraqi police.

CALL it Phase One. The last U.S. combat brigade left Iraq last week. American forces out of harm's way, and headed home. Good news.

Remember, the operative description is Phase One. The departure of all U.S. military is supposed to come at the end of 2011.

Do not confuse that goal with an end of U.S. presence or involvement in Iraq. Parsing out the future depends on definitions and interpretations.

The exit of designated combat forces still leaves 50,000 American troops in Iraq, with another 79,000 U.S. contractors. Men and women in uniform are essentially replaced by taxpayer-supported mercenaries who attract a lot less public attention.

Military roles and functions, from providing security to training security forces, will transfer to civilians overseen by the U.S. State Department.

The role and relevance of the continuing mission should be explained in detail to Congress. The transition from military oversight to civilian command comes with some stunning price tags.

The New York Times reports American diplomats will operate out of two new $100 million outposts. In addition, the security forces will occupy five fortified compounds around the country. Total startup costs push $1 billion, with another $500 million to establish permanent consulate footholds, and $800 million to launch a national police-training program.

For all of this reinforced presence, it is difficult to fathom what role or influence the Iraqis will assign to the U.S.

All of the American blood and treasure expended to make Iraqi safe for democracy failed to produce a government out of the last elections.

At the end of 2009, Iraq undertook an epic auction for access to redevelop its enormous oil reserves. No U.S. company received one of the service contracts.

The what-comes-next part of U.S. involvement in Iraq is not remotely clear, though U.S. troops heading home is good news.

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