With U.S. Withdrawal, Iraq Takes Ownership of Its War

With U.S. Withdrawal, Iraq Takes Ownership of Its War

The decision to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq’s cities on Tuesday was made by Iraqis, not Americans. That’s why the Iraqi government is holding a massive celebration to mark the redeployment as National Sovereignty Day. At the insistence of the Iraqis, the Status of Forces Agreement concluded late last year between the Iraqi government and the Bush Administration required that U.S. troops be out of Iraq’s urban areas by June 30, 2009, and withdrawn from the country altogether by the end of 2011. Now, Iraqi citizens and the American forces hovering in the Iraq’s countryside are now holding their breath for the first stage of testing Iraq’s ability to protect itself.

Residents of Baghdad will no longer see U.S. troops rumbling along their capital’s broad boulevards in their heavy armored vehicles, a persistent and painful reminder of Iraq’s dependency on foreigners for its security. “The number of Americans that they’re seeing in the cities will be drastically reduced,” top Pentagon official Joseph McMillan said Monday. “The procedure for [U.S. troops] re-entering the cities is essentially a call by the Iraqi government.” Most U.S. forces have, in fact, been out of Iraq’s urban areas for weeks, corralled into large rural bases. But they had continued until recently to patrol the two largest cities plagued by continuing violence, Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul. And in a signal of the challenge that will face Iraqi forces when their American partners are redeployed, more than 250 people have been killed in terror attacks over the past 10 days.

“There will be challenges,” said General David Petraeus, commander of all
U.S. forces in the Middle East and champion of 2007’s troop “surge” that
helped tamp down violence in Iraq. “There are many difficult political issues, social
issues, governmental development issues,” Petraeus said Monday in Cairo. “We feel confident in the Iraqi security forces continuing the process of taking over
the security tasks in their own country.” He noted that the current level of
10 to 15 attacks per day is less than 10% of the 160 daily that were occurring in June 2007.

The Iraqis didn’t even wait for the withdrawal to take effect before beginning their celebrations on Monday, with patriotic songs blaring from police and military outposts as Iraqi operated military vehicles cruised city streets. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has hailed the U.S. pullout from urban areas as a “great victory” that frees the nation from foreign occupiers, adopting the tones of a nationalist strongman in order to better position himself for elections later this year. But Army General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, prefers to see Iraq’s reaction to the move as jubilation over the country’s improving security. “They’re talking about this as a celebration of Iraqis, and Iraqi security forces, being able to take over responsibility inside of their cities,” he told Fox News on Sunday.

Odierno insisted that the time has come for Iraq to assume more responsibility. “From a military and security standpoint, it’s time for us to move out of the cities,” he told CNN on Sunday. But he acknowledged that
some unspecified number of U.S. troops — probably numbering well into the thousands — will remain within city limits. “We’ll still be there providing training, advising, enablers for the Iraqi security forces,” he added. “We’ll still be conducting significant operations outside of the cities and the belts around the major cities.”

Despite the unnerving uptick in bomb attacks in recent weeks, it’s too early to know if those are leading indicators of a resumption of the civil war, or a nihilistic lashing out by the losing side. Some in the Pentagon and Iraq believe the aim of the bombing campaign is to show ordinary Iraqis that al-Maliki and the Iraqi security forces are unable to protect them — few of the recent attacks have targeted U.S. troops. There is also deep concern that the Iraqi security forces, which remain dominated by Shi’ites, could inflame sectarian tensions. The Maliki government has angered many Sunni former insurgents who had joined the anti-al Qaeda “Awakening” movement by withholding payments and arresting many of their commanders. Significant potential remains for renewed outbreaks of sectarian fighting. Still, the pullout from urban areas is a critical step toward the eventual withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops by August 31, 2010, and all 131,000 U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2011. Iraq began as George Bush’s war, but today, for better or worse, ownership has passed not to Barack Obama, but to Nouri al-Maliki.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.