BAGHDAD - The US military took a step toward pulling combat troops from Iraqi cities yesterday, moving out of a Baghdad base that Iraqi officials said would be dismantled and converted back into a shopping mall.
It was the first US military base to be handed over to Iraq since American forces came under Iraqi authority on Jan. 1, in compliance with a new security agreement between the two countries.
Brigadier General Robin Swan, deputy commander of US forces in Baghdad, said the transfer of Forward Operating Base Callahan in northern Baghdad was "tremendously significant."
"By June 30th, combat formations are out of the cities. This was a major forward operating base, with 600 soldiers . . . three short weeks ago," Swan said.
US forces set up the base in March 2007 around an abandoned shopping center, now decayed and marked with bullet holes, in a bid to repel Shi'ite militias from the largely Sunni Adhamiya district. It has been quiet for months.
Lieutenant-Colonel Michael Pappal, who heads the base, handed a giant key to Hadi Jadoo, a trade ministry official, as Iraqi army snipers watched from the roof.
"After long suffering, we can now develop this area. We are rid of terrorists," said Hadi Hassan, who will manage the mall.
The transfer of the base came two days after US forces handed over control of the Green Zone, a fortified section of central Baghdad, to Iraq in a step that reflects the narrowing of US operations and improving security across Iraq.
The new security agreement replaced a UN mandate allowing foreign troops in Iraq. It requires Iraqi authorization for US military operations, gives US forces until mid-2009 to pull combat troops out of Iraq's towns and cities, and until 2011 to withdraw completely.
Swan said yesterday's base transfer was the beginning of a wider pullout. A much larger base in nearby Rostumiya neighborhood would be closed completely by the end of March, he said.
Similar Baghdad bases, like Loyalty and War Eagle, are to be reduced in size and turned into joint Iraq-US security stations soon, he added.
How many US troops will remain at joint urban bases after June, and what their activities will be, remains unclear, especially as US military commanders race to ensure Iraq's maturing army is ready to hold together a fragile calm.
US officials have said combat troops may be reassigned to support and advise Iraqi soldiers at joint urban bases.
Violence has fallen across Iraq and few cities have seen as dramatic a turnaround as Baghdad, which a year ago was ravaged by sectarian conflict that left bodies piling up in the streets - although militants still regularly stage lethal bomb attacks.
Iraqi officials said the transfer of the base, known by Iraqis as Sha'ab market, signaled a return to normality.
"We are going to rebuild it for the Iraqi people. It will sell everything they need - clothes, car parts, food, just like before the war," Jadoo said.
In a separate development yesterday, Iraqi authorities arrested the father and brother of a man suspected of killing at least 23 people in a suicide bombing at a preelection tribal gathering south of Baghdad.
The incident, the deadliest attack in Iraq for weeks, highlighted the increasing role tribes and clans are playing in Iraqi politics ahead of provincial polls later this month.
The bomber struck a feast held to unite members of the Qaraghouli tribe, many of whom live in the Qaraghoul village south of Baghdad. Tribe members were invited from other parts of Iraq, and political candidates attended.
Yesterday, tribesmen carried coffins of the victims to the graveyard for burial, chanting "There is no God but Allah."
"The gathering was held to gather our tribal leaders in the north, and the south as well, to unify them. But a criminal act has taken place, causing the death of a number of our brothers," village mayor Jassim Mohammed said.
Major-General Qassim Moussawi, a security spokesman in Baghdad, said the father and son of the suspected bomber had been detained on suspicion of helping to stage the attack.
Tribal structures are gaining in clout in Iraq and are expected to advance in the Jan. 31 provincial elections at the expense of the sectarian-based political parties that have divided power in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.
In Sunni Arab areas, tribes played a decisive role in reducing Iraq's violence by turning on Al Qaeda Sunni militants in 2006-2007. In other areas, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has set up tribal councils, sometimes angering his allies in traditional Shi'ite and Kurdish parties.