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Trepidation as US exits Iraq's cities

June's pullback is part of the phased withdrawal of US forces. Will it jeopardize hard-won security gains?

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 2009

Still on Duty: An Iraqi woman passes US troops and Iraqi police officers as they stand guard in the Bab al-Jadeed area of Mosul, northwest of Baghdad, Iraq.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP

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Washington

On a dusty day in late April, Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq, toured Baghdad's predominately Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah with only a camo cap on his signature shiny head. The flimsy cap, in place of a combat-ready helmet, and his informal chats with street merchants signified just how far Adhamiyah – a one-time urban hotbed of the insurgency – has come.

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The true test of Iraq's progress, however, may be what precautions General Odierno takes after US forces leave Iraq's cities, a step set to occur by the end of June under a US-Iraqi agreement. Car bombs, suicide bombs, and other violence flared in April, leading some to ask whether pulling US troops back to their bases outside the cities will jeopardize – or is already jeopardizing – the hard-won security gains of the 2007 "surge" and counterinsurgency plan.

"A big part of what made the surge [of extra US troops] so successful was the highly visible presence of US forces in the neighborhoods," says Judith Yaphe of the National Defense University here and a former Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency. "The last time we hunkered back in the bunkers was also when we saw some of the ugliest fighting and the worst of the violence. That can't help but raise questions about where we're headed now."

One of the biggest concerns is over Iraq's north, where ethnic tensions between Sunni Arabs and Kurds have been rising since January's provincial elections.

"The Shia population has demonstrated considerable resiliency in the face of the recent uptick in violence against it, but right now the Arab-Kurd conflict is emerging as a far more explosive situation," says Henri Barkey, a former State Department Iraq expert now at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. "And it's focused in Mosul and Kirkuk, cities from which the US will be pulling back."

The troops' imminent retreat to the bases would close a successful chapter in counterinsurgency in which American soldiers lived among Iraqis and operated with Iraqi military units in a bid to put public security first. Their pullback not only will test the readiness of Iraq's security forces to keep the peace in neighborhoods like Adhamiyah, but it will also measure the resolve of Iraq's government to stick with the timetable for US withdrawal from the cities if April proves to be a precursor to more mayhem.

So far, that resolve is firm. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki let it be known May 4 there would be no renegotiation of the phased US troop withdrawal, including the June 30 mandate to leave the cities. Deadlines established in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated by the American and Iraqi governments are "nonextendible," said Maliki spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh.

That decision suits both governments. The Iraqis want a less-visible US presence. The Obama administration, while set on a responsible withdrawal, is more focused on other foreign-policy issues.

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