US forces pull out of Iraq cities

Big parade, festivities planned to mark sovereignty day; four US troops killed

US combat troops left the last of Iraq’s cities on Tuesday, returning the country to Iraqi control in a move applauded by many Iraqis even though some fear it will leave them more vulnerable to attacks.

By midnight on Tuesday, all US combat units must have withdrawn from Iraq’s urban centres and redeployed to rural bases, according to a bilateral security pact that also requires all US troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

The last US combat troops left central Baghdad on Monday, pulling back to two large bases near the capital’s airport, and withdrawals from other cities were under way. Some troops tasked with training and advising Iraqi forces will stay behind. The pullout was marked with a bloody reminder of the six years of war unleashed by the 2003 US invasion. Four US soldiers from the Multi-National Division-Baghdad died of combat-related injuries on Monday, the US military said, but gave no further details.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States had closed or returned to local control 120 bases and facilities in Iraq, and were scheduled to turn over or shutter another 30 by the end of Tuesday.

Celebration time

“This day, which we consider a national celebration, is an achievement made by all Iraqis,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a televised address.

“Our incomplete sovereignty and the presence of foreign troops is the most serious legacy we have inherited (from Saddam Hussein). Those who think that Iraqis are unable to defend their country are committing a fatal mistake.” Maliki has declared the withdrawal ‘National Sovereignty Day’, and a public holiday.

Festivities include a military parade in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic district, viewed by Iraqis as the ultimate symbol of the foreign military presence until local forces took control of it in January.

Iraqi forces began their own celebrations on Monday, decking Humvees and other vehicles with flowers and Iraqi flags. Signs were draped on Baghdad’s ubiquitous concrete blast walls reading “Iraq: my nation, my glory, my honour.”

Maliki has compared the US pullback to rebellions by Iraqi tribes against the former British empire in 1920. Many Iraqis see it as restoring their pride six years after the US-led invasion to oust Saddam turned into a multi-year foreign occupation.
“Definitely, our forces can take control of things now,” said Dawood Dawood, 38, who owns a bathroom appliance shop in downtown Baghdad. “The US withdrawal is a positive step.”

Fear of violence

Some fear a resurgence of violence without the presence of US forces to police Iraq’s cities, although their bases outside remain close enough that they can redeploy if needed.

Militants appear to have stepped up attacks in the past week, including two of the biggest bombings in more than a year that killed 150 people between them, raising doubts about whether Iraqi forces are ready to handle security.

Car bomb kills 10

On Monday, a car bomb killed 10 people near the volatile northern city of Mosul.
“These are some extremist elements who are trying to bring attention to a movement that’s fractured,” General Ray Odierno, commander of US forces in Iraq, told CNN on Sunday. “We are still at low levels of overall violence.”

With the tit-for-tat violence that brought the country to the brink of all-out sectarian civil war in 2006-2007 receding, many Iraqis agree with that assessment. “These explosions are mere bubbles in the air; they shall come to an end one day,” said unemployed Ahmed Hameed, 38.

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