American soldiers who had been expected to withdraw from their bases within Mosul by the June 30 deadline might be allowed to stay under an agreement being finalized with the Iraqi government, United States officials say.
"We're waiting for a final decision, and we're prepared to execute whatever they tell us to execute," says Col. Gary Volesky, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division's 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team.
Although levels of violence have declined dramatically in the past year, attacks have escalated ahead of next week's withdrawal of US troops from major cities here. Dozens were killed after a massive attack Saturday near Kirkuk. On Monday, a series of bombings killed at least 13 people in the Baghdad area.
Despite the attacks, the movement of US forces out of the cities continues. Colonel Volesky, in charge of US forces in the volatile city of Mosul, said his brigade had just turned over to Iraqi forces two of its biggest remaining combat outposts and was waiting to see whether it would be instructed to do the same with the others within the city.
"We just turned in two of the eight that we have so we're on a glide path – we've got plans to shut them all if required," he says.
"Broad agreement has been reached on the post-coalition presence in the city," says another US official who asked to remain anonymous because Iraqi authorities have not yet announced the pact.
A small US presence will continue to advise
The Iraqi government has said some US forces would be allowed to remain in an advisory capacity within the cities after June 30, when the security agreement painfully negotiated by the US and Iraq mandates the withdrawal of all American combat troops from cities and towns.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's pointed insistence that there would be no exemption for US troops in Mosul has led to the widespread belief that the US would have to withdraw its remaining soldiers from inside the city, where they have been conducting joint operations with Iraqi security forces against an ongoing insurgency.
The combat outposts, which are expected to be turned into joint security stations with additional Iraqi Army and police officers, have been a key element in the counterinsurgency strategy of staying in a neighborhood to protect residents while they rebuild. The US soldiers at the joint security stations will continue to assist and advise Iraqi forces.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, said in an interview in April that he believed the US shouldn't make the mistake in Mosul that it had in the past: of pulling out of cities and neighborhoods too soon and allowing insurgents to regain a foothold.
Massive attack in Kirkuk
Officials said a huge truck bomb that detonated near Kirkuk on Saturday, killing at least 75 people and wounding more than 250, had the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda attack. The truck detonated outside a Shiite mosque in Taza after midday prayers, collapsing surrounding homes and burying people in the rubble.
Although US and Iraqi forces have made extensive progress in improving security in Iraq's second biggest city, Al Qaeda in Iraq, other insurgents, and criminal groups still launch daily attacks.
Four bombings took place in and around Baghdad Monday. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr asked the Iraqi government to do more to protect citizens. In a statement, the cleric blamed the bombings on the continued presence of US troops.
Lots of work left in Mosul
In Mosul, the weakest link in terms of security is the Iraqi police force. Iraqi authorities say they are investigating two Mosul policemen accused of opening fire on a US patrol, killing one of the soldiers and his interpreter.
Under new rules which take effect on July 1, apart from cases of self-defense, US troops will likely have to clear the movement of military vehicles in advance with Iraqi authorities.
The provincial governor says he has asked for a sign or other markings on US vehicles after July 1 to show residents that they are not on combat missions and decreed that movement of armored vehicles and equipment adhere to strict guidelines.
"I believe that June 30 should be the date in which the relationship between Iraq and the US is redrawn," Atheel Al Nujaifi, the governor of Ninevah province, says in an interview. "This relationship has to be built on respect between the United States and our citizens and [the principle] that no force is used against our citizens."
Governor Nujaifi is head of the Sunni Arab party Al Hutba'a, which swept to power in provincial elections in January, overturning Kurdish control of the provincial council. Sunnis make up the majority of those who have been targeted in US raids aimed at capturing insurgents. Although it's far from an exclusively Sunni complaint, US military operations early in the insurgency indiscriminately rounded up and detained all males in Sunni areas who were old enough to serve in the military.
"If they want to rebuild the Iraqis' trust, they have to treat them with respect," says Nujaifi, adding that heavy-handed treatment of the local population by US soldiers has tarnished the Americans' image here.
A few minutes after a US State Department team seeing the governor left his office Sunday, a homemade bomb left in a bag exploded just two blocks away, killing an Iraqi civilian pushing a push-cart and wounding several others. Iraqi police in the area responded with what appeared to be indiscriminate gunfire. It was unclear whether the police or the US soldiers in the area were the intended target.
"Everybody's targeted," said Provincial Council Chairman Jaber Mohamad Al Abed Ruboo shortly after the attack. "We hope that the US withdrawal from the area will stop people from using the excuse that they are resisting the occupation."
Less than an hour later, shops on the busy street where the bomb went off had reopened, and the street was full again of residents making their way past the debris.