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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, said Tuesday the end of combat operations as a return to sovereignty and independence for the hobbled country, and tried to reassure his people that their own security forces can defend them.

Iraqi forces on Wednesday appeared to be on heightened alert, spread out at checkpoints across the city intended to reassure the populace and ward off insurgent attacks.

Just under 50,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, down from a peak of about 170,000 at the height in 2007. Those forces will not be able to go on combat missions unless requested and accompanied by Iraqi forces. The last combat brigade left Iraq earlier this month, and the remaining units are being called advise-and-assist brigades by the U.S. military.

But drawing a line between what is and is not combat may not be easy. All American forces carry weapons, can protect themselves and their bases, and still come under attack from insurgents near daily. Earlier this month, for example, Sgt. Brandon E. Maggart, 24, of Kirksville, Mo., was killed near the southern city of Basra on Aug. 22, a few days after the last combat brigade rolled across the border into Kuwait.

Iraq is also far from the stable democracy once depicted by the Bush administration and hoped for by Mr. Obama when he laid out his time line for withdrawing American troops shortly after he took office in 2009.

Half a year has passed since Iraq’s March 7 elections, which failed to produce a clear winner, and the country’s political leaders so far have failed to form a new government.

Anthony Cordesman, a former director of intelligence assessment in the Pentagon, warned in a new report that Iraq is at a critical time and its fate rests on a successful transition of power.

“The withdrawal is far from over, the Iraq war is not over, it is not ‘won,’ and any form of stable end state in Iraq is probably impossible before 2020,” Mr. Cordesman warned.

While Iraqis are generally happy to see the U.S. military pulling back, they also feel that the troop withdrawal is premature because security forces are a top target for militants. Iraqis also say they fear their country will revert to a dictatorship or split along religious and ethnic fault lines without U.S. military support.

“I hope that the American troops will leave Iraq, but not for the time being,” Baghdad resident Fadhil Hashim said Wednesday.

AP national security correspondent Anne Gearan in Ramadi and AP writer Barbara Surk in Baghdad contributed to this report.