Iraqis cheer — and fear — U.S. pullout from cities

Iraqi soldiers join in a parade Tuesday in Karbala to mark the withdrawal of U.S. troops from cities and towns.
Tuesday marked the deadline for American troops to pull out of Iraq’s towns and cities — a long-anticipated date that has been met by street festivals in Baghdad.

Celebrations were tempered, however, by fears of renewed violence as insurgents seek to use the date to stage new attacks. Newscasters on state TV network Al-Iraqiya draped Iraqi flags around their necks as an on-screen clock counted down to midnight Monday (5 p.m. ET). Earlier Monday evening, hundreds of people danced and sang in a central Baghdad park to mark the U.S. pullout. “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 Awatef Jwad of Baghdad. Watch Iraqis celebrate in the capital » There were no columns of tanks rolling out of Baghdad or thousands of troops marching out of other cities as the deadline approached. The U.S. military gradually has been pulling its combat forces out of Iraq’s population centers for months, and they already were gone by the weekend, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters in Washington. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other Iraqi and U.S. officials had warned of an increase in attacks around the withdrawal date as insurgents attempt to re-ignite the sectarian warfare that ravaged the country in 2006 and 2007.

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While many Iraqis publicly said they are glad to see Americans out of their neighborhoods, some cited worries about what the future may hold without the U.S. military nearby. “Without the Americans, we were afraid of each other,” said Hanaa Abdul Hassan of Baghdad. “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. In the past 10 days, a series of spectacular attacks — including bombings that have targeted civilians — have killed more than 200 Iraqis. A car bombing Monday in Mosul killed at least nine Iraqi police officers, and Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni, urged people to avoid crowded public gatherings unless necessary. But U.S. officials said they believe Iraq’s police and army can keep a lid on the violence, which Morrell said was at the lowest point “in the history of this conflict.” U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad in April 2003, less than three weeks after launching the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. President Bush said the invasion was necessary because Hussein’s government was concealing nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs and could have provided those weapons to terrorists. After the invasion, U.S. inspectors found that Iraq had dismantled its weapons programs under U.N. sanctions in 1990s. But the Americans soon found themselves facing an insurgency from several quarters, including ex-members of Hussein’s deposed Baath Party, a Shiite Muslim militia led by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Sunni jihadists loyal to al Qaeda in Iraq. More than 4,300 Americans have been killed in Iraq since the invasion. The latest deaths happened Monday, when four U.S. soldiers serving in Baghdad died of combat-related injuries. The U.S. military announced the deaths Tuesday without giving further details. A Web site associated with the Baath Party posted a statement Tuesday attributed to Hussein’s former deputy, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, calling the American pullout a “historic victory” for the insurgents. “The 30th of June 2009 is your precious and glorious day that embodies your historic victories,” the statement said. “For your enemy and the enemy of God decided to flee the battlefields dragging the tails of disappointment and defeat to protect its fleeing soldiers in a few and limited fortified bases, where they think they will find safety from your heroic charges and Godly strikes.” Al-Douri, the highest-ranking member of Hussein’s government to remain at large, is believed to be a top figure in the insurgency. His urged Iraqis to keep fighting Americans “wherever they may be in Iraq.” By mid-2006, the conflict had become a low-level civil war, marked by the dumping of bodies in the streets on a daily basis. The conflict began to subside in late 2007 after Washington committed extra troops and supported a turn against the jihadists by Sunni Arab tribal leaders. Under an agreement signed in the waning days of the Bush administration, all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Most will be gone by August 2010 under the withdrawal plan laid out by Bush’s successor, President Obama. The United States believes Iraqi forces are ready to take control of security in the cities, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said 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,” American envoy Christopher Hill said. “We’ve worked very hard with the Iraqi forces, and we think they are ready for this.” Hill added that “some groups would like to undo” the security gains of the past year, but “I think the Iraqis do have a right to feel proud.” The 130,000 U.S. troops who remain are tasked with supporting Iraqi troops and police, and will be unable to launch operations in the cities without Iraqi consent. A small number of Americans will stay in cities to train, advise and coordinate with Iraqi security forces.

“There is still a huge force presence in Iraq that is more than capable of responding to any incident which may come up that the Iraqi security forces ask for our assistance,” Morrell said. There has been speculation in recent months that exceptions would be made to allow some combat forces to stay in some places, including the northern city of Mosul. But the Iraqi government said that no exceptions will be made and that its troops are ready to take over security.