Premier Casting US Withdrawal as Victory for Iraq

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The New York Times

Premier Casting US Withdrawal as Victory for Iraq

by
Steven Lee Myers and Marc Santora

American soldiers on Sunday surveyed the damage from a truck bomb that had exploded the day before in Kirkuk. (Marwan Ibrahim/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)

BAGHDAD - Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has taken to calling the withdrawal of American combat troops from Iraq's cities by next Tuesday a "great victory," a repulsion of foreign occupiers he compares to the rebellion against British troops in 1920.

And the Americans are going along with it, symbolically and substantively.

American commanders have hewed far more closely to the June 30 deadline for withdrawing combat forces from Iraq's cities than expected only a few weeks ago, according to American and Iraqi officials.

They have closed outposts - even in Baghdad and still-troubled Mosul in the north - that they had initially lobbied the Iraqis to keep open, having concluded, the officials said, that pressing the case would be counterproductive given the political significance that Mr. Maliki had given the deadline.

The day itself has been declared a national holiday, though it is not yet clear whether Iraq will hold the "feast and festivals" he recently promised.

American and Iraqi officials acknowledge the risks - to Mr. Maliki's political position and to Iraqis' safety.

On Wednesday, four days after the last American base in Sadr City closed, a bomb hidden on a motorcycle cart killed at least 76 people and wounded more than 150 in a market in the neighborhood. On Thursday, at least seven bombs exploded around the country in what appeared to be a message from extremists days before the deadline.

A great deal of Mr. Maliki's political support rests on the fact that violence has declined since the carnage of 2006 and 2007, that he has rebuilt the security forces, that he has presided over the beginning of the end of the American war. He rarely mentions any American role in the improved security in Iraq - though 130,000 American troops remain in the country.

"We will not ask them to intervene in combat operations related to maintaining public order," he said in an interview with Le Monde published last week. "It is finished."

With the deadline now only days away, a drastically reshaped American military posture has emerged, largely because of Mr. Maliki's insistence.

Bases built over months and years have been dismantled, often in weeks. The once ubiquitous presence of American armored vehicles on Baghdad's streets has largely ended.

More than 150 American bases or outposts have been closed in Iraqi cities this year - 85 percent of the total, an Iraqi official said - including some that commanders considered crucial.

The Americans asked to keep open an outpost in Sadr City, the Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad that once served as the base of Shiite militias, only to be rebuffed.

"This is one we wanted," Brig. Gen. John M. Murray said. "The Iraqi government said ‘no,' so now we are leaving."

The Americans even acquiesced to requests to suspend virtually all American operations - even in support roles - for the first few days of July to reinforce the perception that Mr. Maliki desires: that Iraqi security forces are now fully in control of Iraq's cities.

"They will be invisible for the people," Ali al-Adeeb, a senior leader in Mr. Maliki's Dawa Party, said of the Americans. "They will turn into genies."

Far from a celebration, the deadline has provoked uncertainty and even dread among average Iraqis, underscoring the potential problems that Mr. Maliki could face if bloodshed intensifies.

Even some Iraqi officers are worried. Brig. Gen. Mahmoud Muhsen, a commander with the First Division of the Iraqi National Police, grimly predicted that sectarian violence could return. He warned that control of Iraq's borders remained ineffective, allowing more foreign fighters to enter.

"They are taking away all the equipment that the Americans provide," he said, "and with the agenda of countries neighboring Iraq, it is a recipe for disaster."

The Sadr City attack, like others recently, appeared intended to discredit Mr. Maliki's government, to test its security forces and to undermine the public sense of improving security. To some degree, they already have.

"When the Americans get out of city centers, a big war will start," a woman who identified herself as Um Hussan said amid the wreckage of a bombing on Monday outside her house in the Ur neighborhood of Baghdad. It has been months, she added, since she last saw American forces there.

"We ask God to help us for what is coming," she said.

Iraqi and American officials anticipate attacks in the days surrounding Tuesday's deadline, as extremists, Sunni and Shiite, seek to exploit the American withdrawal.

The security agreement between Iraq and the United States that set the June 30 deadline for withdrawing from the cities, and from the country by 2011, gave American commanders broad discretion to continue operations.

But decisions on what Americans remain where - doing what - ultimately now rest with the Iraqis, and the Americans have deferred in negotiations.

"We will be gone in whatever way the Iraqi government tells us to be gone," said Lt. Col. Timothy M. Karcher, commander of the forces departing Sadr City.

It is far from a complete withdrawal, of course. Thousands of American troops will remain in Baghdad and other cities, merely shifting their role from combat to training and advising. So far there are no restrictions yet on the American use of helicopters, a regular reminder overhead of remaining firepower.

The Americans have been strikingly sensitive to Mr. Maliki's political position, emphasizing Iraqi primacy in all public remarks. They have declined to specify how many American troops will remain in cities, seemingly fearful of undercutting Mr. Maliki's public declarations of a full withdrawal.

The chief military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, said that only an "extremely small" number would remain at the request of the Iraqis, conducting training and operations that the Iraqis could not yet do on their own, like emergency medical evacuation.

Much of the complicated work of dismantling and removing millions of dollars of equipment from the combat outposts in the city has been done during the dark of night. Gen. Ray Odierno, the overall American commander in Iraq, has ordered that an increasing number of basic operations - transport and resupply convoys, for example - take place at night, when fewer Iraqis are likely to see that the American withdrawal is not total.

In his discussions with the Americans, officials said, Mr. Maliki has shown far more pragmatism than his public remarks about repulsing foreign occupiers might suggest, requesting, for example, that American explosive removal teams keep sweeping Baghdad's streets.

Still, his strong language and what one Western adviser described as his inflated sense of the abilities of his own forces have left him little room, politically, to backtrack should the security situation worsen significantly.

"Symbolically," General Lanza said of the withdrawing American forces ahead of Tuesday, "this is what we want for the Iraqis as a sovereign nation."

Duraid Adnan contributed reporting.

 

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