Death squads roamed the streets, slaughtering members of the rival Muslim sect. Bombs rocked Baghdad daily, until thousands of US troops poured in two years ago, establishing neighborhood bases and taking control of the Iraqi capital and other cities.
By Tuesday, all but a small number of American soldiers will have left Baghdad and other urban areas, handing over security to Iraqi soldiers and police still largely untested as an independent fighting force.
State television has been showing a countdown clock with a fluttering Iraqi flag and the words “June 30: National Sovereignty Day.”
If the Iraqis can hold down violence, it will show the country is finally on the road to stability. If they fail, Iraq faces new bloodshed, straining a nation still divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The top US commander in Iraq, Gen Ray Odierno, said he was confident it was the right time for the move.
“I do believe they’re ready,” he told CNN in an interview. “We’ve seen constant improvement in the security force, we’ve seen constant improvement in governance.”
Privately, many US officers worry the Iraqis will be overwhelmed if violence surges, having relied for years on the US for everything from firepower to bottled water.
Many Iraqis also fear more violence after a spike in bombings and shootings last week that killed more than 250 people. US and Iraqi officials have warned they expect more violence as insurgents try to stage a show of force in the days surrounding the withdrawal.
“The Americans are pulling out but they haven’t accomplished the task that they came for, which is defeating terrorism,” said Miriwan Kerim, a 32-year-old watch peddler in Kirkuk. “The security situation is still fragile so the withdrawal will not restore us to square one but to square zero.”
President Barack Obama insists there’s no turning back. Handing over control of the cities brings him one step closer to fulfilling his campaign pledge to end an unpopular war that has claimed the lives of more than 4,300 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Despite public unease, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears eager to see the Americans leave and has urged Iraqis to hold steady against continued violence. Ahead of national elections next year, al-Maliki is portraying himself as the leader who defeated terrorism and ended the US occupation.
He has declared June 30 a national holiday, telling a national television audience Saturday that the US departure will “bolster Iraq’s security” and show the world that Iraqis can manage their own affairs.
Many Iraqis are also eager for the US occupation to end, although more than 130,000 American troops remain in the country.
“It is good to see the departure of American troops as the first phase of ending the foreign occupation of our country,” said Ibrahim Ali, 26, a teacher from Kut. “Our troops are able to protect Iraqi cities, but they need more training and naval and air support.”
Others fear the security forces, especially the police, are still under the influence of Shiite militants and will not enforce the law evenhandedly.
The withdrawal, required under the US-Iraqi security pact that took effect this year, marks the first major step toward withdrawing all American forces from the country by Dec. 31, 2011. Obama has said all combat troops will be gone by the end of August 2010.
American soldiers will remain in the cities to train and advise Iraqi forces as well as protect US diplomatic missions and provincial reconstruction teams. With only hours to go, US and Iraqi officials were still haggling over numbers and locations.
Combat operations will continue in rural areas but only with permission of the Iraqi government. US troops will return to the cities only if asked.
The absence of tens of thousands of American troops who once lived, fought and patrolled the streets of Baghdad and other cities will be a major challenge for Iraqi forces.
With the deadline approaching, US troops have been packing up their gear and moving to bases outside the cities, such as the giant Camp Victory complex on the western edge of Baghdad or Forward Operating Base Marez on the outskirts of Mosul.
Days before the deadline, streets of Baghdad were crowded with cars and pedestrians as music blared from the shops. Iraqi police and soldiers manned checkpoints, inspecting identity cards and checking vehicles for weapons.
Not a single US soldier could be seen on the streets in many Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.
That was a far cry from the early years of the US mission, when heavily armed US soldiers, tanks and other armored vehicles rumbled through the streets bearing signs warning Iraqis they could be shot if they came too close.
The withdrawal from the cities marks an end to the US troop surge strategy of 2007, when the US rushed thousands of reinforcements to Iraq to stem fighting between Sunnis and Shiites.
Before the surge, the US tried moving troops out of the cities, handing over security to the Iraqis. American units would patrol Baghdad by day and return to bases outside the city at night, leaving control of the streets to death squads and militias.
The surge changed all that. US soldiers moved out of giant bases and into former schools, clinics and police stations where they lived and worked round-the-clock with their Iraqi partners.
Now, the focus of the US effort will be training and mentoring.
“Our sustained success in Iraq will hinge on how well we replace massive US forces with an effective and lasting US advisory effort and the level of military aid we continue to provide,” former Pentagon analyst Anthony Cordesman said.
The US must decide how to deal with crises as its leverage over the Iraqis fades “and Iraqi politics dominate events,” Cordesman said.
Sunni lawmaker Mustafa al-Hiti said the drawdown is coming too soon “but the government has made its decision and will shoulder the responsibility of any failure if the security situation unravels.”
The Americans will also become more dependent on the Iraqis for tracking insurgents since US troops will not be in key urban areas, raising concerns about increased vulnerability of the Americans.
“We’ll be relying a lot on the Iraqis for that situational awareness,” said military spokesman Brig Gen Stephen Lanza.
Rockets have been fired in recent weeks at the Green Zone, which houses the US Embassy and the Iraqi government headquarters.
In past times a full military response would have been seconds away. Soon it will be up to the Iraqis to respond.
The No. 2 US commander in Iraq, Lt Gen Charles Jacoby, said if US troops come under fire “they’ll defend themselves” but “their job is to support and assist and advise Iraqi security forces.”
US commanders plan to assume a low public profile for the first two weeks of July to avoid any perception they’re not honoring the agreement.
Most convoys will travel at night, even for the short distance between Camp Victory and Baghdad’s protected Green Zone. They will also travel with Iraqi escorts to show they are not operating unilaterally.
In Mosul, US vehicles must be marked with signs to show they are noncombat forces.
One US officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive, acknowledged it will be hard for many American soldiers to let go.
“You have to cut the cord at some point and this is it,” he said.