US Withdraws from Iraqi Cities Despite Violence

By: KIM GAMEL
By: KIM GAMEL

BAGHDAD (AP) - Death squads roamed the streets, slaughtering
members of the rival Muslim sect. Bombs rocked Baghdad daily -
until thousands of U.S. troops poured in two years ago,
establishing neighborhood bases and taking control of the Iraqi
capital and other cities.

By Tuesday, all but a small number of American soldiers will
have left Baghdad and other urban areas, handing over security to
Iraqi soldiers and police still largely untested as an independent
fighting force.

State television has been showing a countdown clock with a
fluttering Iraqi flag and the words "June 30: National Sovereignty
Day."

If the Iraqis can hold down violence, it will show the country
is finally on the road to stability. If they fail, Iraq faces new
bloodshed, straining a nation still divided along sectarian and
ethnic lines.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said he was
confident it was the right time for the move.

"I do believe they're ready," he told CNN in an interview.
"We've seen constant improvement in the security force, we've seen
constant improvement in governance."

Privately, many U.S. officers worry the Iraqis will be
overwhelmed if violence surges, having relied for years on the U.S.
for everything from firepower to bottled water.

Many Iraqis also fear more violence after a spike in bombings
and shootings last week that killed more than 250 people. U.S. and
Iraqi officials have warned they expect more violence as insurgents
try to stage a show of force in the days surrounding the
withdrawal.

"The Americans are pulling out but they haven't accomplished
the task that they came for, which is defeating terrorism," said
Miriwan Kerim, a 32-year-old watch peddler in Kirkuk. "The
security situation is still fragile so the withdrawal will not
restore us to square one but to square zero."

President Barack Obama insists there's no turning back. Handing
over control of the cities brings him one step closer to fulfilling
his campaign pledge to end an unpopular war that has claimed the
lives of more than 4,300 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of
Iraqis.

Despite public unease, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears
eager to see the Americans leave and has urged Iraqis to hold
steady against continued violence. Ahead of national elections next
year, al-Maliki is portraying himself as the leader who defeated
terrorism and ended the U.S. occupation.

He has declared June 30 a national holiday, telling a national
television audience Saturday that the U.S. departure will "bolster
Iraq's security" and show the world that Iraqis can manage their
own affairs.

Many Iraqis are also eager for the U.S. occupation to end,
although more than 130,000 American troops remain in the country.

"It is good to see the departure of American troops as the
first phase of ending the foreign occupation of our country," said
Ibrahim Ali, 26, a teacher from Kut. "Our troops are able to
protect Iraqi cities, but they need more training and naval and air
support."

Others fear the security forces, especially the police, are
still under the influence of Shiite militants and will not enforce
the law evenhandedly.

The withdrawal, required under the U.S.-Iraqi security pact that
took effect this year, marks the first major step toward
withdrawing all American forces from the country by Dec. 31, 2011.
Obama has said all combat troops will be gone by the end of August
2010.

American soldiers will remain in the cities to train and advise
Iraqi forces as well as protect U.S. diplomatic missions and
provincial reconstruction teams. With only hours to go, U.S. and
Iraqi officials were still haggling over numbers and locations.

Combat operations will continue in rural areas but only with
permission of the Iraqi government. U.S. troops will return to the
cities only if asked.

The absence of tens of thousands of American troops who once
lived, fought and patrolled the streets of Baghdad and other cities
will be a major challenge for Iraqi forces.

With the deadline approaching, U.S. troops have been packing up
their gear and moving to bases outside the cities, such as the
giant Camp Victory complex on the western edge of Baghdad or
Forward Operating Base Marez on the outskirts of Mosul.

Days before the deadline, streets of Baghdad were crowded with
cars and pedestrians as music blared from the shops. Iraqi police
and soldiers manned checkpoints, inspecting identity cards and
checking vehicles for weapons.

Not a single U.S. soldier could be seen on the streets in many
Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.

That was a far cry from the early years of the U.S. mission,
when heavily armed U.S. soldiers, tanks and other armored vehicles
rumbled through the streets bearing signs warning Iraqis they could
be shot if they came too close.

The withdrawal from the cities marks an end to the U.S. troop
surge strategy of 2007, when the U.S. rushed thousands of
reinforcements to Iraq to stem fighting between Sunnis and Shiites.

Before the surge, the U.S. tried moving troops out of the
cities, handing over security to the Iraqis. American units would
patrol Baghdad by day and return to bases outside the city at
night, leaving control of the streets to death squads and militias.

The surge changed all that. U.S. soldiers moved out of giant
bases and into former schools, clinics and police stations where
they lived and worked round-the-clock with their Iraqi partners.

Now, the focus of the U.S. effort will be training and
mentoring.

"Our sustained success in Iraq will hinge on how well we
replace massive U.S. forces with an effective and lasting U.S.
advisory effort and the level of military aid we continue to
provide," former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman said.

The U.S. must decide how to deal with crises as its leverage
over the Iraqis fades "and Iraqi politics dominate events,"
Cordesman said.

Sunni lawmaker Mustafa al-Hiti said the drawdown is coming too
soon "but the government has made its decision and will shoulder
the responsibility of any failure if the security situation
unravels."

The Americans will also become more dependent on the Iraqis for
tracking insurgents since U.S. troops will not be in key urban
areas, raising concerns about increased vulnerability of the
Americans.

"We'll be relying a lot on the Iraqis for that situational
awareness," said military spokesman Brig. Gen. Stephen Lanza.

Rockets have been fired in recent weeks at the Green Zone, which
houses the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters.

In past times a full military response would have been seconds
away. Soon it will be up to the Iraqis to respond.

The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, said
if U.S. troops come under fire "they'll defend themselves" but
"their job is to support and assist and advise Iraqi security
forces."

U.S. commanders plan to assume a low public profile for the
first two weeks of July to avoid any perception they're not
honoring the agreement.

Most convoys will travel at night - even for the short distance
between Camp Victory and Baghdad's protected Green Zone. They will
also travel with Iraqi escorts to show they are not operating
unilaterally.

In Mosul, U.S. vehicles must be marked with signs to show they
are noncombat forces.

One U.S. officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because the
issue is sensitive, acknowledged it will be hard for many American
soldiers to let go.

"You have to cut the cord at some point and this is it," he
said.


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