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Iraqis uneasy at idea of early US withdrawal

Unnerved by bombings that have killed hundreds this summer, many Iraqis are losing faith in their own security forces and fear the Americans are leaving too quickly.

world Updated: Aug 16, 2009 11:42 IST

Unnerved by bombings that have killed hundreds this summer, many Iraqis are losing faith in their own security forces and fear the Americans are leaving too quickly. The misgivings about the US pullback from the cities, and even about the Dec. 31, 2011 deadline for a full withdrawal, come at a time when a senior US officer has suggested the Americans declare victory and leave even sooner.

Iraqis, including military commanders, believe their security forces aren't ready to act alone.

"We do not want a hasty withdrawal. The Americans have promised a responsible withdrawal in coordination with the Iraqi government and they should live up to their commitments," said Abbas al-Bayati, chairman of parliament's security committee. A security pact by the U.S. and Iraqi governments lays out the timetable, but this summer's attacks mainly targeting Shiites and minority groups in northern Iraq and Baghdad have shaken public confidence.

At least 520 Iraqis have been killed, 378 of them in bombings, since June 30, the date the withdrawal from the cities was completed, according to an Associated Press tally. "I don't blame Sunnis for these cruel attacks that Shiites are suffering from now. There are political reasons behind them," Ali Jassim, a 45-year-old Shiite store owner in Baghdad, said after bombings in Mosul and Baghdad on Monday. "What do these government promises and assurances that security is under control mean? I strongly demand that the Americans return to the streets and with even more presence than before."

While past attacks have led to sectarian retaliation, Iraqis now focus their anger on government forces and political stagnation. The Shiite-led government is criticized for failing to use its gains against insurgents to promote reconciliation with Sunnis. Still, the Pentagon found in a recent report to Congress that more than 80 per cent of Iraqis surveyed in April said they had confidence Iraq's army and police could protect them, compared with just 27 percent for American forces.

This is the contradiction Iraqis face: They badly want their country back but remain heavily dependent on the U.S. military to help clear roadside bombs, deploy attack aircraft, gather intelligence and even make weather forecasts for flights. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears eager to see the Americans leave and has urged Iraqis to hold steady against continued violence, calling the U.S. withdrawal from cities a great victory and portraying himself as the leader who defeated terrorism and ended the American occupation.

Despite the unrelenting bombings, the government has announced that it plans to remove by mid-September most of the concrete blast walls that have turned Baghdad into a prison-like maze as part of its campaign to project normalcy ahead of national elections. Al-Maliki's administration insists its forces just need more weapons and equipment.

"We have taken big steps during a difficult period, and there are still more steps to take to overcome the remaining obstacles," al-Maliki told Shiite tribal members Saturday.

President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to end the war and ordered all U.S. combat forces to leave the country by the end of August 2010. But he said 35,000 to 50,000 troops would remain to train and advise Iraqis, mindful of warnings that security gains are fragile.

In a memo leaked last month, an American adviser to the Iraqi military command, Army Col. Timothy R. Reese, argued U.S. troops should leave by next summer. He said they have done all they can, and the Iraqis can manage.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, disagreed, saying the military's shift to a support role needs time. He said the memo dealt with tactical issues, not the overall strategic goal of helping Iraq become a U.S. partner in the Middle East. Reese's comments got little attention in Iraq, where officials said privately they are used to internal U.S. debate over the timetable.

"Such suggestions by Americans are meant only to test the confidence of Iraqi officials and study their reactions," said Kazim al-Muqdadi, a political analyst at Baghdad University. The US is expected to keep its force of some 130,000 troops largely intact in Iraq until after national elections scheduled for January. And in light of the bombings, most Iraqis are in no rush to see them go.

One exception is followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the most vehement opponents of the U.S. presence.

"We think the Iraqi security forces, despite some breaches and problems, are capable of controlling the country," said Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr's movement. "A faster withdrawal by the U.S. will force the Iraqis to be more responsible and confident in dealing with problems."

But the consensus is that while Iraqi soldiers and police can man checkpoints and carry out operations, they still need significant weapons and training - particularly in developing Iraq's navy and air force, which had to be built from scratch following the 2003 U.S. invasion.

"I think that Iraqi forces will be able to handle the security situation in the country, but we might need noncombat troops to stay past 2011," al-Bayati said.

One senior Iraqi general, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the issue with the media, said the navy needs at least another five years to be strong enough to defend Iraq's oil-rich patch of the Persian Gulf. The police chief in the northern, ethnically tense city of Kirkuk, Maj. Gen. Jamal Tahir, also cautioned that rising animosity between Arabs and Kurds may turn violent.

"It takes time until Iraq's police and army can be fully prepared to take over responsibility and all pending problems related to the disputed areas can be solved," he said. "Until then, the presence of American forces is preferred." A Sunni lawmaker warned that the top U.S. rival in the region, Iran, was ready to fill any vacuum.

The United States "must fix the main mistake it made, which was disbanding the Iraqi army and other security forces after the invasion," Saleh al-Mutlaq said. "The atmosphere is not stable yet and the US occupation could be replaced by an Iranian one if the Americans leave too soon."