As U.S. buildup in Iraq ends, what next?

The military buildup in Iraq is about to end.

But as the last of the five additional combat brigades now heads home, it leaves the country far safer than it was a year ago. Yet Iraq still is not ready to stand alone.

The departure of the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division will lower U.S. troop levels there to roughly 142,000 U.S. personnel by mid-July – at least 7,000 more than before the buildup began early last year. But it also sets up questions about how many more can come home in this election year, and whether the drop in violence can be maintained by the Iraqi security forces.

Two reports released Monday laid out significant political, economic and security progress in Iraq. But both cautioned that the country remains unstable and volatile.

The quarterly Iraq progress report issued by the Pentagon warned that Iran and Syria continue to provide safe havens for terrorists, and allow them to travel across the borders into Iraq. It also repeated concerns that Iran's Quds Force, an elite unit of its Revolutionary Guards, continues to supply both weapons and training for militants in Iraq.

On the domestic side, the report sounded a pessimistic tone, saying the government of Iraq still struggles to enact its budget and fund large projects to rebuild its infrastructure.

The government, it said, “lacks the ability to execute programs on the scale required,” and economic improvements remain “fragile, reversible and uneven.”

Al-Qaida in Iraq, meanwhile, has been hobbled by the military buildup and subsequent improvement of Iraqi forces, and its areas of operation have shrunk, the report said. It warned, however, that al-Qaida in Iraq is regrouping along the upper Euphrates River in Anbar province.

The report details the spike in attacks during March and April when Iraqi forces clashed with militias in Basra, triggering violence in Sadr City and a wave of bombings against coalition troops in the International Zone.

A second report, issued by the congressional Government Accountability Office, pointed to a lack of progress by Iraqi forces because just 10 percent can operate on their own. And it said the government continues to fall behind in meeting the demands for services, such as electricity.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered a glimmer of hope Monday that troop levels in Iraq will continue to come down this year. He said he hopes that if Iraq continues to improve, he will be able to free some U.S. forces by the fall to send to Afghanistan.

“Iraq is in a much better place than it was a year ago, across the board,” said Mullen, speaking to a large gathering of military and civilian workers in the Pentagon auditorium. “We're not at the sustainable point yet, we're not at the irreversible point yet.”