By ALISSA J. RUBIN
Published: June 30, 2009
BAGHDAD — Iraq declared a public holiday Tuesday to celebrate the official withdrawal of American troops from Iraqi cities and towns, emptying the streets as many people stayed home because they feared violence.
As official Iraq celebrated, the American military announced the death of four soldiers on Monday from combat operations in Baghdad, a reminder of the continuing hazards for American troops here and the vulnerability of soldiers as they wrap up operations in the field.
In the past few weeks, with the approach of the official date for withdrawal, nationalist sentiments have spread within the Iraqi government and military, with officials all but boasting publicly that Iraq is ready to handle the security situation on its own. The date of June 30 was set in an Iraqi-American security agreement that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2009.
Speaking as a military parade marking the event was held deep inside the heavily-fortified Green Zone, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki said: “The national united government succeeded in putting down the sectarian war that was threatening the unity and the sovereignty of Iraq.”
He made no mention of the American military’s involvement in fighting here for the last six years.
In most respects it was an artificial day of sovereignty since more than 120,000 American troops remain on Iraqi soil and in most other respects Iraq already has its sovereignty. There were no official documents signed between the two countries and no handover of authority on Tuesday. All that had been done months ago.
In accordance with the security agreement there were no American troops to be seen on Baghdad streets and the Iraqi authorities have made clear they do not want to see them — unless their help is requested. The American military has obliged, ordering soldiers to remain on base for the next few days to give the Iraqis a chance to demonstrate that they are in control.
The vast majority of American troops had withdrawn prior to June 30 and closed down their urban bases, in some cases several weeks ago. They have moved to large forward operating bases. Only a handful of urban outposts in Baghdad, requested by the Iraqi authorities, remain open.
The military parade in the Green Zone on Tuesday at the official monument to the unknown solider was attended primarily by Iraqi media and dignitaries. The public could not reach it because of the extensive security precautions restricting access to the Green Zone. Several American news organizations were also barred, including two television news networks and The New York Times, on the grounds that they did not have the appropriate badges.
This seemed in part intended to signal that the Iraqi authorities were in charge. In the past most checkpoints were manned jointly by Iraqis and Americans and if someone was missing the correct badge, an exception could be made.
In his speech Mr. Maliki said the media would encourage insurgent attacks if they questioned the ability of the security forces to handle the job. The Iraqi government has periodically attempted to muzzle news organizations perceived as supporting insurgents. While only a couple of outlets have been prevented from covering the country, the message has been clear.
Many of the celebrations on Tuesday seemed contrived by officials. Police cars were festooned with plastic flowers as if the entire police force was going to a wedding and signs celebrating ‘independence day’ were tied to blast walls and fences around the city. On Monday night a festive evening celebration in Zahra Park with singers and entertainers primarily drew young men, many of them off duty police officers.
Ordinary Iraqis were more skeptical. “There is no doubt this is not national sovereignty because the Americans will stay inside Iraq in military bases,” said Najim Salim, 40, a teacher in Basra. “But the Government wants to convince the citizens that there is a withdrawal of foreign troops, although the Government could not protect citizens in some cities in Iraq even with the presence of U.S. forces.”
Read Full Post »