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Security Fears Loom as U.S. Troops Drawback in Iraq

June 30, 2009 at 6:05 PM EDT
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The exit of U.S. forces from cities in Iraq was celebrated on Tuesday, even as many in the nation worried about the ability of Iraqi police and military forces to provide adequate security. Jane Arraf of The Christian Science Monitor discusses the situation with Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on today’s handover, we go to Jane Arraf, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor in Baghdad. She has covered Iraq since the early 1990s for several news organizations, including Reuters, CNN and NBC.

Jane Arraf, thank you for talking with us. We have just shown the celebrations in the streets. How do you sense the mood is there?

JANE ARRAF, Christian Science Monitor: Well, it’s interesting. The expression they use here, Judy, is it’s like a wedding, which means a huge celebration, singing, dancing and flowers everywhere, particularly on the police vehicles and the army trucks.

But just below that, if you scratch the surface a little bit, there is quite a lot of apprehension. You know, the car bombings aren’t gone. The suicide bombings aren’t gone. And in a lot of neighborhoods, although they are clearly celebrating the fact that they’re taking back their country, they’re also really worried about what the next few weeks and next few months will hold.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is known, Jane, about how exactly this new arrangement is going to work?

JANE ARRAF: That is such a great question. I’ve been trying to pin that down. And, in essence, what it means is that the U.S. is no longer free to go and do missions on its own. Combat troops — and the key is combat troops — have to be out of the cities.

Now, that doesn’t mean that all troops are going to be out of the cities, even though that’s what Iraqis are expecting in a lot of places, but what it does mean is, when there are troops out there, are convoys out there, they will be accompanied by Iraqi forces.

To actually make that work takes a level of coordination that probably doesn’t quite exist yet. Military precision doesn’t really mean the same thing to Iraqi security forces that it does to the U.S. Army, for instance.

So what a lot of people are expecting is a lot of waiting around, waiting for that phone to ring, as U.S. officials wait for approval and wait for coordination for those escorts to be able to do missions, non-combat missions.

And a lot of it is going to come down to relationships, whether Iraqi commanders have good relationships with their American counterparts and vice versa. So the bottom line, really, is it’s not entirely clear to anybody how exactly this is going to work starting tomorrow.

Gauging U.S. and Iraqi expectations

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what are American officials telling you?What are their expectations? How well do they think the Iraqis are going to do?

JANE ARRAF: It really depends where you are. In places like Baghdad, where securityreally has improved quite dramatically, unless there's something that sparksrenewed sectarian violence -- for instance, retaliatory attacks -- then theythink they'll probably be OK here.

In places like Mosuland Diyala, it's a different story. And in Mosul,even though Prime Minister Maliki has been very strenuous in saying noextension for U.S. troops inMosul, they areactually being allowed to keep some of their bases. They're turning them intojoint security stations, but it means that they keep a presence in the city.

And that's important, because that's the way that theymanage to maintain security and improve security in Baghdad, for instance, by putting thosetroops directly in the city. So it really does depend on what kind of fightthey're fighting.

Again, in Mosul,the police are a problem, so they're trying to figure that out, in a countrywhere, although they rapidly increased the security forces' quality andprofessionalism, they don't have the money to expand them any further. Sothat's another problem they're looking at.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Jane, what about the Iraqi officials?What are they saying? How confident are they that this is going to work?

JANE ARRAF: That's a really mixed bag. If you talk todefense officials, the senior officials, they're completely on board and theysay, "It's all fine. We're ready for this." They're ready for itpartly because they're still getting a lot of U.S. help.

I think there's a misconception that a lot is going tochange starting tomorrow. And in practical terms, it's not really. In symbolicterms, it's huge. It really is a huge milestone for Iraqis and their sense ofnational sovereignty.

But on the ground, really, the Americans are going tocontinue to provide logistical help, a lot of intelligence help, medicalevacuation, all of those things that the Iraqis can't do for themselves,including air support. So, really, they are getting a lot of support. And that'sa comfort to Iraqi officials.

But in places, for instance, again, like Mosul,which is Iraq'ssecond-biggest city and perhaps the most volatile, people like the mayor aresaying, "We're not ready yet. Don't take those forces away." Thatdecision has been made, and everyone is living with it, and everyone is tryingto make the best of it, essentially.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting. Jane, you've been, as we said,in and out of Iraqsince the early 1990s. How would you describe overall circumstances there now comparedto other times you've been there?

JANE ARRAF: Precarious, I suppose. As you know, Judy, inSaddam Hussein's time, things were not very rosy, either, but people basicallyhad a tradeoff.

They had a bizarre, strange sort of security, because thebargain they made -- bargain that many Iraqis made is that, if they didn'tengage in politics, if they don't really demand very much, if they didn't wantany freedom, they were kind of OK. Now that's all been turned upside down.

And when people go out their door in some places in themorning, they still tell you they don't know whether they'll come back atnight. There are still daily attacks. So it is very fragile. It's veryprecarious.

But now that security has improved a bit, people are turningtheir eye to the other big problems: unemployment, lack of electricity, lack ofa future, which means that there's still something like 2 million Iraqis whoaren't coming back yet. So this is a country that is getting on its feet, butstill a bit shaky.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jane Arraf, reporting for us from Baghdad on the day U.S. troops begin to pull back,thanks, Jane.

JANE ARRAF: Thank you, Judy.