Yesterday Iraqis celebrated a new national holiday, National Sovereignty Day, which marked the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraqi cities. This partial pullback, which is a vindication of the Bush Administration’s surge strategy, has gone relatively unnoticed in Washington, perhaps because many members of the Obama Administration opposed the surge and remain ambivalent about progress in Iraq.

Thanks to Bush’s surge, which enabled an Iraqi surge, violence in Iraq is down by 90 percent from its peak in 2007. Iraqi security forces have made great strides in improving their effectiveness and are increasingly confident that they can shoulder the bulk of the security burden. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has trumpeted the growing strength of the Iraqi government, warning: “Those who think that Iraqis are incapable of protecting security in their country and that the withdrawal of foreign forces will leave a security vacuum which will be difficult for Iraqi forces to fill are making a grave mistake.”

But the assertive Iraqi prime minister, who has tended to overestimate the capability of the Iraqi army in the past, may be minimizing the prospective security losses inherent in the U.S. troop redeployment in order to extract the maximum political benefits from stressing his government’s independence from the United States. Despite tremendous progress, the security situation remains fragile in some parts of Iraq and could deteriorate further unless the Iraqi government reaches out to apprehensive Sunni Arab leaders who have denounced the Sunni-dominated insurgency and includes them in a broader ruling coalition.

Iraq’s government must overcome major challenges if it is to translate the security gains of the surge into sustainable political progress. Iran continues to covertly support Shiite militias which have maintained a low-intensity guerrilla campaign against U.S. forces. There are growing tensions between Kurds and Arabs, Turkmen, and Christian minorities in northern Iraq stemming from territorial disputes over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other areas. Al-Qaeda in Iraq remains an active and lethal threat, particularly in northern areas where it has exploited frictions between Sunni Arabs and other groups. The Iraqi parliament remains deadlocked on the issue of a new oil law that would guarantee the equitable distribution of oil revenues to all Iraqi provinces. And there are signs that the government is reneging on its promise to continue paying the salaries or find jobs for former Sunni insurgents in the Awakening movement who defected and cooperated with U.S. forces by joining the Sons of Iraq militia.

The Obama Administration must intensify its focus on Iraq and become proactively engaged in pressing all Iraqi factions to reach a national consensus based on political reconciliation. It must reject complacency and relentlessly press the Maliki government to seek broader Sunni participation in the coalition government in order to decisively isolate and defeat the diehard insurgents. This requires high-level attention from the Obama Administration, which can not depend merely on the U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad, Christopher Hill, who has no previous experience in the Middle East, let alone Iraq.

Yesterday’s announcement that Vice President Joseph Biden has been designated as the administration’s point man on Iraq is disappointing, to say the least. Biden not only opposed the surge and was slow to appreciate its success, but he publicly advocated a “soft partition” of Iraq that outraged the leaders all Iraqi factions, with whom he now must closely cooperate. Biden’s partition plan would have been a disastrous formula for a never-ending civil war, because it would have been impossible to negotiate an acceptable reshaping of Iraq’s multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian mosaic or delineate mutually acceptable borders for various autonomous regions.

The real drawdown of U.S. troops begins after Iraq’s January 2010 elections. Most of the 130,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq will remain until after that important vote. Then the Obama Administration plans to phase out all combat troops by the end of August 2010, leaving a residual force of 30,000 to 50,000 military personnel to train, advise, and support the Iraqi security forces. All American military forces must be withdrawn by the end of 2011, according to the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement between Washington and Baghdad.

This remains an ambitious agenda that may require additional negotiations with the Iraqi government to extend the final deadline for a total U.S withdrawal, if Iraq’s political progress does not continue as planned. President Obama must make a strong commitment to a successful transition to a stable and secure Iraq, not merely remain committed to an exit plan. He must listen more to his military commanders inside Iraq, and less to political leaders such as Vice President Biden or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who mistakenly opposed the surge policy that led to Iraq’s improved situation today. Above all, he must remain personally engaged in formulating an Iraq policy that safeguards American national interests by ensuring the emergence of a friendly Iraq and avoids squandering the hard-won gains of the surge.

For more on Iraq, see: Progress in Iraq