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

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    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.
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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.

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."

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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.

"The Obama administration's interests lie everywhere else but Iraq; there's nothing they want to be doing less than worry about Baghdad," says Thomas Donnelly, a defense and national security fellow at the American Enterprise Institute here. As a result, he adds, the administration will aim to stick to the SOFA, which the Bush administration negotiated with Iraq, and to the withdrawal timetable President Obama announced (all troops out by December 2011) soon after taking office.

"President Obama may have reasons he wants to avoid a disaster there, but he's simply not as fully committed to a successful outcome as President Bush was, and that's going to color our response to whatever lies ahead there," says Mr. Donnelly, who helped the US military design the Iraq surge.

Even if violence in Iraq outstrips April's troubling levels, military officials in Washington foresee little likelihood of timetable exceptions. The US military suffered 18 fatalities last month, the highest number since September, and Iraqi civilian deaths surpassed 355 in the bombings focused on Shiite population centers – the highest monthly total this year.

Still, some military officials and Iraq experts say the US pullback to outlying bases simply means a return to the presurge pattern of traveling to planned operations – except that now those operations must be Iraqi-approved. The Iraqi Defense Ministry's spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, recently hinted at the new scenario for US urban operations: "American troops [will] withdraw from Iraqi cities and not enter the cities unless they get Iraqi approval."

At the same time, military experts anticipate a little fudging on what constitutes "cities" and an acceptable withdrawal from them.

•Tense and ethnically mixed Mosul in the north, once considered a likely exception to the city pullback, will remain a focus of US operations – from a large base on the city's outskirts. Diyala Province north of Baghdad also remains an area of concern.

•US troops will remain in and around Baghdad – several thousand to provide security to the US Embassy and civilian American officials, and thousands more on bases that the Iraqi government has deemed to be sufficiently on the capital's periphery.

Mosul is still a base of Sunni insurgent activity and is considered the last stronghold of Al Qaeda-affiliated militants, according to the US military. Arab-Kurd tensions have boiled up there, too, in recent months.

Another worry there is infiltration of Iraq's security forces by extremist elements. In late April, an Iraqi soldier walked up on a group of US soldiers lifting weights at their Mosul-area outpost and opened fire, killing two Americans and wounding several others.

As the US withdraws to peripheral bases, a wild card is how well the Iraqi government deals with the Sunni militias – the so-called Sons of Iraq organizations. The US was able to turn them against the insurgency and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups in exchange for the promise of financial backing and their eventual integration into the Iraqi military.

"We know the Maliki government hasn't yet incorporated the Sons of Iraq [into the military] as they should," says Phebe Marr, a prominent Iraq scholar and author of "The Modern History of Iraq."

April's rise in violence is a result, at least in part, of the US pullback already under way, Ms. Marr adds. How Mr. Maliki handles potentially explosive issues such as Sunni integration and Arab-Kurd tensions, she says, is likely to determine the scope of the violence – and what kind of challenge it poses to the US withdrawal. "The Iraqis want to show they can fly on their own as soon as they can," Marr says. "But it just might not be a very pretty flight."

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