Historic moment in Iraq marked by little fanfare, mixed feelings

Tuesday marks the long-anticipated deadline for American troops to pull out of Iraqi towns and cities, but on Monday, there will be no long lines of tanks rolling out of Baghdad or thousands of troops marching out of other cities.

The U.S. military has been gradually pulling its combat troops out of Iraq’s population centers for months to meet the deadline agreed to by Washington and Baghdad. Since January, Americans have handed over or shut down more than 150 bases across the country, leaving U.S. troops in a little more than 300 locations in Iraq that gradually will be handed over to Iraqi control. Iraqis expressed mixed feelings in the run-up to what the government has been describing as National Sovereignty Day. Watch a report on feelings about the withdrawal » Many Iraqis publicly say they are glad to see Americans out of their neighborhoods, but there are some who are worried about what the future may hold without the U.S. military nearby. Baghdad resident Hanaa Abdul Hassan told CNN she feels “fear and horror.” “Without the Americans, we were afraid of each other, and now that the Americans are leaving, we will be more afraid. We knew the Americans were holding them back, so now I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said, without specifying who “they” were. She asked Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, to “keep an eye” on Iraqis and take care of them.

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Another woman who identified herself as Asmaa said she was also concerned, calling the American troops “something that we depend on. I am afraid of this day.” But many others are in a celebratory mood. “I feel the same way as any Iraqi feels — I will feel my freedom and liberation when I don’t see an American stopping an Iraqi on the street,” said Baghdad resident Awatef Jwad. The United States believes Iraqi forces are ready to take control of security in the cities, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq told CNN on Monday. “The U.S. forces, in addition to being, I think, the best fighting forces, are also some of the best trainers in the world, and we’ve worked very hard with the Iraqi forces, and we think they are ready for this,” Christopher Hill said. He said Iraqis should feel “proud that their security services are able to take over these responsibilities.” “Obviously, some groups would like to undo” security gains of the last year, he said, “So I think the Iraqis do have a right to feel proud.” The withdrawal will leave a small number of U.S. troops in the cities to train, advise and coordinate with Iraqi security forces. Most U.S. troops in Iraq will be stationed in bases outside the city limits, in locations agreed upon between the U.S. and Iraq. In recent months, there has been speculation that exceptions would be made to allow some combat forces to stay in some cities, including Mosul. But the Iraqi government said no exceptions will be made and its troops are ready to take over security. Odierno said Sunday that it was “time for us to move out of the cities.” “I believe they’re capable of doing this,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “We’ll still be conducting significant operations outside of the cities and the belts around the major cities, and I believe this will enable us to maintain the current security and stability situation here in Iraq.” Watch Odierno say “this is the time” for U.S. troops to leave Iraqi cities » The last 10 days of June have been marked by spectacular attacks and violence that have left more than 200 Iraqis dead and hundreds wounded. On Monday, just a day before the deadline, a car bombing in Mosul killed at least nine Iraqi policemen. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi and US officials had warned of an expected rise in attacks around the withdrawal date. On Friday, Tariq al-Hashimi, Iraq’s Sunni vice president, urged people to avoid crowded public gatherings, unless necessary, and called on security forces to be more vigilant. There will be an official ceremony marking the pullback Tuesday in the heavily fortified International Zone, where most Iraqi government buildings and the U.S. Embassy are located. The area also is known as the Green Zone. On Monday evening, Baghdad city authorities said they will be holding a public celebration with Iraqi singers, poets and other festivities at the capital’s biggest park, al-Zawraa. Iraqi military parades are also planned in different cities, with some already taking place. Following the historic handover, U.S. forces will have to get permission from the Iraqi government to move into cities and towns or to carry out operations within urban areas. Joint military centers have been set up to coordinate military operations and approve U.S. military movements. Last week, the government declared June 30 a national holiday and called for celebrations.

The U.S. has pulled about 30,000 troops out of Iraq since September, leaving about 131,000 troops there now. Most are due to be out of Iraq by end of August 2010 under President Obama’s withdrawal plan. A residual force will remain, and all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011 under the Iraq-U.S. security agreement.