Iraqis celebrate US troops' pullback

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

Nabil al-Jurani/AP
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.

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.

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.

Powersharing and stability

Beyond basic security, Iraqi leaders are looking ahead to the complex problems of powersharing and the other elements of sustained stability.

"If I were to compare where we were today to where we were four, five years ago, the progress is undeniable and is very impressive. But we still have some very serious problems," says Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salah. "We really need to attend to the politics quickly, that's No. 1. No. 2 is, we really cannot be complacent, because this enemy that we are fighting is still tenacious, ruthless, and will stop at nothing to disrupt what we have gained."

The US says four American soldiers were killed Monday in Baghdad, but gave no details on the attack on what was otherwise a relatively quiet day ahead of Tuesday's national holiday.

At Zawraa park in Baghdad on Monday night, several hundred young men and a few families came out to celebrate at what quickly became a dance party.

"I'm very happy," said Ali Ghareeb, gyrating wildly with his buddies, one of them wrapped in an Iraqi flag He then cursed American forces.

He and his friends, from Sadr City, said US soldiers had broken down doors in their neighborhood and made Iraqis uncomfortable walking in their own streets.

Concerns in less stable areas

Others said that, without US troops to back up the fledgling Iraqi forces, attacks would inevitably increase.

"The Americans are controlling the situation. When they leave, I'm afraid the violence will start again," said Shayma Kareem, whose family has lived in the mostly Shiite al-Amal neighborhood of Baghdad for the past five years, after being driven out of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, by sectarian fighting.

Security has improved dramatically in Iraq since the country pulled back from the brink of civil war two years ago. But fears that the American pullout is premature runs highest in areas that are still unsettled.
In Kirkuk, north of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in a busy market on Tuesday killing 25 people and wounding more than 40.
In Mosul, where Iraqi and US troops have been fighting an active insurgency, Mayor Zuhair al-Aaraji said last week that he had rejected a proposal to hold June 30 celebrations.

"I told them, 'You can go and celebrate, I'm not participating,' " he said. "I'm going to celebrate when the situation really stabilizes, when there are no unemployed people, and everyone is really ready for this."

In Baghdad, near the parade grounds at the Rasheed Hotel, another chapter of history was unfolding.

Representatives of international oil companies gathered in a ballroom to bid on developing Iraq's oil fields in the first auction since the country nationalized its oil industry three decades ago.

"This is the biggest oil event in history," said one oil expert watching the bidding for substantial parts of the world's second-largest proven oil reserves.

Despite the intense interest in deals potentially worth billions of dollars, most of the major oil companies declined the ones offered Tuesday after finding out that their profit per barrel would be substantially lower than they'd expected. A second round of bidding is expected.

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