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“Are we satisfied with the progress in Baghdad? No. But to say nothing is happening is just simply not the case,” he said.

Now, the president’s surge has ended, and U.S. troops are beginning to leave Iraq. By March, the U.S. military plans to be at pre-surge strength, with about 130,000 troops on the ground.

At that time, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker will report to Congress on how Iraq is doing in meeting benchmarks.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in September that U.S. troops might draw down to 100,000 by the end of 2008, but has since retracted that number, saying that Gen. Petraeus will decide what happens beyond March.

“We obviously want to sustain the gains that we have already made,” Mr. Gates said at a Pentagon press conference last week.

The United States runs the risk of seeing violence re-escalate as U.S. troops move out.

“When the surge ends and we lose the ability to sit on certain areas with extra forces, we could see a significant rebound in violence,” said Wayne White, a former Iraq analyst for the State Department, now at the Middle East Institute.

And if no laws are passed by the Iraqi parliament by March, administration officials run the risk of facing a situation similar to last winter and spring, when Congress appeared poised to impose a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

One administration official said that public opinion polls are “irrelevant,” but another acknowledged that public opinion on Iraq is the “center of gravity.”

“The public opinion of what we need to do in Iraq matters. Not that we look at the polls on this, but the Congress matters. The Congress has to provide funds,” the official said.

Despite these risks, the White House is more optimistic about Iraq than at any time in recent memory.

“I am not Pollyannish about Iraq. We have had times in the past where it looked like we were on the right track,” Mr. McGurk said. “This does feel different, though.”