US troops ready to withdraw from Iraqi cities

Posted in Iraq | 25-Jun-09 | Source: Gulf in the Media

US soldiers pack their equipment at a base south of Sadr City in Baghdad ahead of a pullout.

US combat troops will pull out from Iraq's cities and main towns as the war-torn country takes sole charge of security in a major stepping stone to a complete American withdrawal.

Most American troops will retreat to their main bases and only re-enter urban areas if the Iraqi security forces ask for their support in tackling unrest or conducting other operations.

Formal ceremonies will take place on Monday but the government has declared the official departure day a national holiday.

Soldiers and armoured vehicles will continue to patrol the streets just as they have for the past six years but from now on the patrols will exclusively comprise the national army and police.

Only a small number of US forces in training and advisory roles will remain in urban areas, with the bulk of American troops in Iraq, still numbering 131,000 as of this week, quartered elsewhere.

Iraqi leaders have voiced confidence that they are ready to provide security for the country's near-30 million people, but have warned that major obstacles linger, suggesting insurgents and militias could step up their attacks to coincide with the US pullout.

‘Withdrawal does not mean the end of security challenges,' Interior Minister Jawad Al Bolani said at a press conference in Baghdad this month, before adding: ‘The security forces have the capability to face these challenges.'

Those forces - 500,000 police officers and around 250,000 soldiers - have largely taken charge already, with General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, acknowledging that most of his troops have already left the cities.

But questions remain over whether the security situation has improved permanently, after bombings this month near the northern city of Kirkuk and the southern town of Nasiriyah together killed more than 100 people.

Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki has put the attacks, the former of which was Iraq's bloodiest in 16 months, down to an attempt by Al Qaeda to undermine confidence in the country's security forces and revive sectarian division.

Iraq was blighted by such feuding in 2006 and 2007, when tens of thousands lost their lives.

Violence has dropped markedly since, with May 2009 seeing the fewest deaths linked to unrest since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Attacks, however, remain common, especially in Baghdad and the restive northern city of Mosul.

US forces insist they will not stay in Iraqi cities past June 30, despite concerns from some over the security situation in Mosul, in particular.

Odierno has said that the focus for American troops will shift to training, advisory and co-ordination, with only a small number, though he did not specify how many, remaining in cities in those roles.

‘We are committed to a sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq,' he told reporters earlier this month.

In addition to the transfer of most bases, US forces have pledged to provide their Iraqi counterparts with 8,500 rebuilt and reissued Humvees, 5,000 of which have already been handed over, Odierno said, without specifying when the transfers would be complete.

They will also release or transfer to Iraqi custody about 11,000 detainees held in US prison camps, with the last American facility closing in August 2010.

Maliki has already said Iraq will call on the Americans for logistical support because his military forces lack planes and helicopters, but has insisted Baghdad will not request help on combat operations.

In February, President Barack Obama announced a new strategy that will see most US combat troops leave Iraq by August 2010, although a force of up to 50,000 will remain until the end of the following year.

The pullout from cities, major towns and villages stems from last November's US-Iraq accord - the Status of Forces Agreement - that enshrines the end of 2011 deadline for a complete US withdrawal.

Government spokesman Ali Al Dabbagh, meanwhile, led a recent press conference by noting that June 30 already holds a special place in the minds of many Iraqis. On that day in 1920, an insurrection here led to the first broad-based political movement calling for an independent Iraq.