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Iraqis celebrate US troops' pullback

Amid a huge display of national pride, some expressed concerns that violence could spike again.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 30, 2009

In Basra,Iraq's second-largest city, Iraqi security forces react Tuesday as US troops pulled out of Iraqi cities, in the first step toward winding down the American war effort by the end of 2011.

Nabil al-Jurani/AP

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Baghdad

Iraqis celebrated taking back full control of their streets on Tuesday, putting on a huge display of national pride mixed with worry over the prospect of violence reigniting while US forces keep their distance.

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Near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Baghdad, the best of Iraq's defense forces – soldiers, police, special forces officers, and even sailors and airmen – paraded past the Iraqi prime minister and defense minister in a reviewing stand.

American and Romanian tanks, armored vehicles, humvees, and firetrucks rolled past an audience of dignitaries that included US Gen. Ray Odierno, whose combat forces have now pulled out of Iraqi cities under a landmark security agreement.

In the background, the crossed swords of Saddam Hussein's monument to the Iran-Iraq war – modeled after his own fists – rose over the parade ground.

It was a far cry from the massive parades highlighting dozens of tanks and missiles that the late Iraqi leader presided over before he was toppled in 2003 – but much more heartfelt.

Behind the monument, as units of Iraqi forces grouped near immaculate vehicles waited their turn to enter the grounds, there was a backstage atmosphere.

"This is the most beautiful day," said Iraqi special forces Capt. Mustafa Kamal, posing for photos with some of his men. He said he expected US forces to continue to help them with logistics, training, and other support, but that they were up to the challenges.

Injecting a note of realism, he added: 'The explosions will continue, whether the Americans are here or not."

A ceremony with plenty of bravado

Despite concerns that key parts of Iraq's recreated security forces are still heavily reliant on US support, there was no shortage of bravado before the ceremony unfolded.

"I challenge every other intelligence sector in the country," said Assam Atallah of the 9th Division's intelligence battalion. He pointed to one of three armored vehicles modified by the Iraqi Army in the image of an American Stryker vehicle.

"This is our own Stryker," he said. "We designed it 100 percent."

Iraqi security forces have been on high alert for attacks around the June 30 pullout specified under the security agreement signed last year by the two countries.

Under the agreement, all US combat troops have withdrawn from populated areas. Those soldiers allowed to remain in cities, in some of the almost 300 bases the US still holds as it draws down, will be involved in advising and assisting Iraqi forces, rather than in counterinsurgency.

With US troops having taken ever more of a back seat to Iraqi forces since January, the symbolic importance of what Iraq has called its 'Day of National Sovereignty' has taken on added significance.

"The symbolism is important," says government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "We were injured by losing our sovereignty in the tent of Safwan in 1991, and now we're gradually regaining it."

Mr. Dabbagh was referencing what is seen here as a humiliating cease-fire agreement imposed by the US after the Gulf war, in which Iraq surrendered sovereignty over its air space and its border with Kuwait. It was signed in Safwan, near the Kuwaiti border.

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