June 30 marks first step in U.S. Iraq pullout

Tomorrow the U.S. and Iraq will officially mark the pullout of U.S. troops from Iraq’s cities and towns. Coming six years after the massive U.S. invasion, it is the first step in a withdrawal timetable agreed on by the two countries in December, with all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. Only time will tell whether this first pullout phase will turn out to be real, and what kind of Iraqi nation will emerge.

The Iraqi government has declared Tuesday 'National Sovereignty Day,' a public holiday that will be marked by festivities, The Associated Press reported. McClatchy Newspapers reported that Iraqi TV stations were running a countdown logo — 'Two days till June 30' — on all programs.

Celebrations began Monday in Baghdad with patriotic songs broadcasting from speakers mounted at police stations and military checkpoints. Iraqi military vehicles decorated with flowers and Iraqi flags patrolled the city, AP reported.

The Iraqi government plans to hold a large party Tuesday in one of Baghdad's main parks on the west side of the Tigris River that will include popular singers and fireworks. The celebration will be broadcast on the other side of the river on a giant screen.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told the French newspaper Le Monde, 'We are on the threshold of a new phase that will bolster Iraq's sovereignty. It is a message to the world that we are now able to safeguard our security and administer our own affairs.'

The bulk of the more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq will be disappearing from urban streets and neighborhoods. Much of that pullback has already occurred, military officials say. In one key section of Baghdad, for example, Iraqi army and police now total about 106,000, three times as many as the U.S., according to a McClatchy report. In another area, 4,000 U.S. soldiers in an armored brigade have been slashed to an armored unit of 60.

Yet many caution that there are a lot of loopholes in the pullback. The U.S. troops have not gone far away. They are now stationed in massive bases around the towns and cities, and can be “invited” back at any time by Iraqi forces.

McClatchy’s Mike Tharp notes that the withdrawal agreement “leaves a lot of discretionary decisions to the Americans.” Reporting on a U.S.-Iraqi foot patrol in Baghdad over the weekend, for example, Tharp writes that the U.S. liaison officer “could have termed the patrol a ‘force protection’ mission, not a ‘combined patrol.’ In that case, only Americans would've been walking the route.”

Reporting from Baghdad, McClatchy’s Laith Hammoudi finds tomorrow’s pullout “sparks mixed emotions among many Iraqis. On the one hand, they see the move as a further step toward regaining the sovereignty they lost when the U.S. invaded the country in 2003. On the other, they're not overly confident about the ability — or even the willingness — of the Iraqi army and national police to take over their safety.”

More than 250 people have been killed in a series of suicide bombings and other attacks in the last 10 days. Many Iraqis worry that the U.S. pullback will open the way for increased violence by ex-Baathists and other extremists.

Another viewpoint was provided by Mohammed Abulazziz, 34, from Baghdad, who told Hammoudi he thinks Iraqi security forces will be able to handle the situation. 'I think Iraqis will be better than the American especially if they are armed well,' he said. 'The prestige of the Iraqi soldier is higher than an American's because he is an occupier.'

In any case, reports from many sources indicate the U.S. is intent on maintaining an increasingly low profile in Iraq and moving forward with the overall withdrawal plan. President Obama has reiterated his intention to complete the U.S. pullout as set forth in the U.S.-Iraq agreement.

A new report from the well-connected Center for a New American Security suggests that some influential U.S. foreign policy circles are projecting a new path to advance what they consider to be U.S. strategic interests in Iraq.

The report, titled “After the Fire: Shaping the Future U.S. Relationship with Iraq,” says, “It is time for America to take the long view. Neither Iraq nor America’s stake in a stable, peaceful, secure Middle East will vanish when the last American combat brigade departs. American policymakers must advance U.S. interests in Iraq and the Middle East through a long-term, low-profile engagement to help resolve Iraq’s internal challenges, strengthen its government and economic institutions, and integrate it as a constructive partner in the region.”

The center counts among its directors and advisors Clinton Secretary of State Madeline Albright, Bush Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and figures connected to the military, military industry and think tanks.

suewebb @ pww.org