One thing Iraq's leaders have clearly picked up from the U.S.: the value of political theater. For weeks, officials have been ratcheting up the assertive rhetoric, some even calling today's withdrawal of American combat troops to positions outside Iraq's cities "liberation." At a recent press conference, three Iraqi ministers took turns making it clear no delay would be countenanced. "All American troops will be gone no later than the 30th of June," stressed government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. By the time the Americans pulled out Tuesday, many Iraqis were dissing their erstwhile rescuers, some asking what took them so long and dancing in the streets on a holiday President Nuri al-Maliki quickly dubbed National Sovereignty Day. "I hope this will be a first step toward them leaving our country. That would be a great day," said retired school teacher Fatima Ali. "Americans are outsiders and occupiers. They destroy the country and cause its people lots of harm."
Iraq could be exposed to security risks if such sentiments harden within the political class. Under the agreement signed last November between the United States and Iraq, U.S. combat troops have withdrawn to nonurban areas and a belt around major cities like Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. The agreement provides for the Americans to step back into the cities and towns when asked by Iraqi authorities—PRESUMABLY if they perceive a threat they can't handle alone. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says the Americans will be close enough to respond quickly. In the meantime, his troops will continue to conduct "full-spectrum" operations outside cities and towns.
The question is whether emboldened Iraqis will ask for help when the time comes. Especially in the short term, meaning in the period between now and parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of January 2010. Jockeying has already begun in the current Parliament, and, like Maliki, who is trying to leverage his image as a tough wartime leader to win a second term next year, some Iraqi leaders may be eager to demonstrate their independence by insisting that Iraqi security forces handle even existential threats. "I'd say they'd have to be in a pretty hard place before they asked for any ground troops," a Western contractor working with the government told NEWSWEEK. "There are some who will want to withhold any visible request for help and try to see it though on their own and hope for the best," added the contractor, who would not be quoted discussing sensitive internal politics.
Few in the Iraqi Army and national police are as prepared to tough it out when the time comes. A senior Iraqi Army general describes his forces and the U.S. Army as a "team" noting that manpower shortages already make it difficult to handle all the terrain that needs to be covered. And the top national police commander, Maj. Gen. Hussein Jasim al-Awadi, reminded an interviewer several times that the U.S. forces will be nearby, "responding to our requests" for help. "The Americans are not leaving …civilians should calm down and relax," he said.
Anti-American comments at rallies cannot mask apprehension among some Iraqis who woke up Tuesday to checkpoints staffed by Iraqi military only. Although 130,000 U.S troops remain in Iraq, they are keeping a low profile. U.S. Army personnel told NEWSWEEK all forces have been told to stay on their bases from July 1-5, with few exceptions. Some Iraqis are anxious about the American-free streets. "I'm not happy with the pulling of U.S. soldiers out of the cities. It leaves everything in the hands of the Iraqi forces, who proved incompetent in achieving security, for they are sectarian, impolite, and aggressive," said college student Samir Ahmed.
Odierno says Iraq's Army and national police, which number more than 600,000, are greatly improved, and, he believes, are ready to take the lead in defending their countrymen. "From a combat operational perspective, a large majority of the Iraqi security forces are capable," he said in an interview near the once-embattled city of Fallujah. "The issue is sustainability … and we will continue to assist their ability to sustain, as well as develop some of the capacity they need."
Al-Awadi says critical comments about his force are residue from an earlier time. "There has been a bond developing between the civilians and Iraqi security forces that will help defeat terrorists," he said. His comments appeared to be borne out during a patrol through Saediyah, a south Baghdad district devastated by sectarian cleansing in 2006-2007. Blue-and-white national police Humvees festooned with colorful plastic flowers drove slowly through the dusty streets as residents waved and smiled.
Such reconciliation featured prominently in Maliki's National Sovereignty Day speech, in which he declared the U.S. withdrawal a "joint achievement of all Iraqis, worthy of their history and their great civilization and their sacrifices." He did not mention of American sacrifices. So far, 4,323 U.S. servicemen and women have died in Iraq, including four yesterday.
American troops have now settled into quarters away from the bases and camps they've long occupied. They leave behind small contingents to train and advise the newly ascendant Iraqi security forces. Odierno calls the new supporting role "a change in mindset" that commanders and rank and file are adapting to. This pullout is to be followed by the removal of all combat forces next August and complete withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.
Odierno says he is confident this is the right time to make the switch in cities. He also says he expects the attacks of the last two weeks, which he attributes to Al Qaeda in Iraq and Shia militias, to continue. As if on cue, terrorists exploded a car bomb Tuesday in the northern disputed city of Kirkuk, killing 30 people. The attack came just hours after the Americans withdrew. The hope now is that such attacks don't multiply and intensify to the point where Iraq has to call back the cavalry after all.