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Iraqi Forces Take Over Cities as U.S. Steps Back

BY Admin  June 30, 2009 at 11:15 AM EST

Iraqi soldiers carry the national flag; AFP/Getty

While
some Iraqis fear the first step in a full U.S. withdrawal may leave them open
to attack, the government declared “National Sovereignty Day” and
Baghdad held a giant party to mark the milestone.

“This
day, which we consider a national celebration, is an achievement made by all
Iraqis,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a televised address, as
citizens drove around the streets with flags and plastic flowers draped over
their cars, according to media reports.

“Our
incomplete sovereignty and the presence of foreign troops is the most serious
legacy we have inherited (from Saddam). Those who think that Iraqis are unable
to defend their country are committing a fatal mistake.”

By the
end of Tuesday, all U.S. combat units must have withdrawn from urban areas and
redeployed to rural bases, according to a bilateral security pact that requires
all U.S. troops except for trainers and advisers to leave Iraq by the end of
2011. U.S.-led combat operations are due to end by September 2010.

But
hours before Tuesday’s pullback deadline, the U.S. military said four U.S.
soldiers based in Baghdad had died of combat-related injuries on Monday. It
gave no further details.

Iraqi
and U.S. troops have been on alert for insurgent attacks during the handover.

“While
more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed
soldiers in hulking vehicles have largely disappeared from Baghdad, Mosul and
Iraq’s other urban centers,” the Washington Post reported. “Iraqis
danced in the streets and set off fireworks overnight in impromptu celebrations
of a pivotal moment in their nation’s troubled history.”

Pentagon
spokesman Bryan Whitman said U.S. troops had closed or returned to local
control 120 bases and facilities, and would turn over or close another 30 by
the end of Tuesday.

“It
really is a sovereignty day,” Balqis Eidan, a 30-year-old Iraqi state
employee told the New York Times. “I agreed with Maliki. It is a very
important day in our history. But we are still worried about security. We hope
that our forces will be able to handle security. The way will be a long one.”

Across
Baghdad, signs were draped on the ubiquitous concrete blast walls reading
“Iraq: my nation, my glory, my honor.”

Maliki
has compared the U.S. pullback to rebellions by Iraqi tribes against the former
British empire in 1920. Many Iraqis see it as restoring their national pride.

While
Tuesday marked a day of national celebration, Iraq still faces myriad
challenges to its safety and stability.

On
Tuesday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, accused
Iran of continuing to support and train militants who are carrying out attacks,
including most of the ones in Baghdad.

“Iran
is still supporting, funding and training surrogates inside Iraq,” Odierno
told reporters at his base outside Baghdad, according to news agencies. “I
think many of the attacks in Baghdad are in fact done by individuals supported
by Iran.”

On
Monday, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said he was concerned about military
reports showing that illegal arms continue to flow into Iraq from Iran,
although he could not say if they had been reduced or increased amid the recent
security gains.

“Certainly
we’ve seen examples of this which are not consistent with a good neighbor policy,”
he told the Associated Press.

The U.S.
military accuses Iran of backing Shiite militias in Iraq with training and
weapons and says it remains a major threat to Iraq’s stability. Tehran denies
allegations that it is supporting violence in Iraq.

In the
past week, militants have stepped up attacks in Iraq, including two of the
biggest bombings in more than a year, which killed 150 people between them. But
the violence that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out sectarian civil war in
2006-2007 has receded.

Still,
the political situation remains unsettled. Tensions have grown between Baghdad
and the minority Kurds in Iraq’s north, and all eyes will now be on a
parliamentary election in January that will test Maliki and Iraq’s fledgling
democracy.

The
troop deadline coincides with the government’s first major energy tender since
2003. Scores of foreign oil executives have flown into Baghdad for a chance to
bid for major fields in Iraq, which has the world’s third largest oil reserves.

The
country’s long-awaited licensing round to develop some of its massive oil
reserves stumbled Tuesday as oil and gas companies dug in their heels,
demanding more money for their efforts than the government was willing to pay.

But by
midday, only one of six oil and two gas fields had been awarded and several
others drew limited to no interest.