The U.S. war in Iraq is over. Pentagon chief Leon Panetta said this morning in Baghdad that it's over. President Obama said yesterday in North Carolina that it's over. Obama also said, on three separate occasions in October, that it would soon be over. Hey, did you hear the war is over?

But it's not really over. While Obama hails the troop departure as a promise kept, he has carved out a loophole big enough for a Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle.

Indeed, many of these MRAP vehicles will still be on the prowl in Iraq, which remains a war zone even as Americans complete the long process of tuning it out. Our occupation continues, albeit in a more benign fashion. We will pay 5500 heavily armed private contractors (roughly the size of a combat brigade) to provide security for 10,000 State Department employes stationed at five former U.S. military bases (now known as "Enduring Presence Posts"), and at the new U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad (a 100-acre compound which is roughly the size of Vatican City).

These little codicils have been largely overlooked in the press. Obama rarely talks about the private contractors - and the fact that they'll apparently operate with minimal congressional oversight - in part because he is rarely asked about them. Obama's interview last weekend on 60 Minutes was a classic example. At one point, he remarked, "We've got Mom, who's writing (me), saying, 'You know what? My son just came back from Iraq. Thanks for keeping your promise'" - but over the span of an hour, host Steve Kroft never asked him about our residual private army, or about Iraq at all.

The war has merely moved into a rebranded phase - America, 2.0. Via privatization, we'll still have armed forces in Iraq for the indefinite future - the difference being that, this time, they will operate semi-secretly. Most notably, we on the home front are largely in the dark about their rules of engagement, because the State Department is reportedly not anxious to share such info with the watchdogs on Capitol Hill. And such sharing would appear to be necessary, given what happened back in 2007, when State Department contractors opened fire in an Iraqi square and killed 17 civilians.

One big irony is that Secretary of State Clinton was a vocal critic of these mercenaries back when she ran for president (February, 2008: "The time to show these contractors the door is long past due"). But by the spring of 2010, it was already clear (at least to the relative handful of Americans who were paying attention) that that the rebranding phase was well under way; as one State official reportedly wrote in a letter to the Pentagon, "After the departure of U.S. forces, we will continue to have a critical need for logistical and life support of a magnitude and scale of complexity that is unprecedented in the history of the Department of State."

Can the gang at State really pull this off successfully? Not necessarily. In the words of Don Zakheim, a Reagan-era Pentagon aide who served recently on a commission that scrutinized wartime contracting, "We're very very worried. I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

Maybe Obama had no choice but to play it this way. Maybe the only responsible way to finish mopping George W. Bush's slop was to effectuate a verrrry slowwwww transition - in the hope that, via State diplomacy, we can further coax the country toward a workable stability. Even so, we should at least have no illusions.

Regardless of all the orchestrated hype, Obama's ballyhooed "end of the war in Iraq" (as a White House press release put it) should not be confused with peace in our time. His kept promise is not synonymous with a cessation of violence. More Americans will surely die. More and better oversight will surely be required - and rightly so. Because after long enduring a needless, bloody, and costly war that was born in lies and deceit, the least we can do now is stay vigilant and insist upon the truth.

------

Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1