Iraqis skeptical about significance of U.S. pullback

HAMZA HENDAWI | 7/5/2009, 10:57 a.m.

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqis are skeptical that much will change after last week's pullback of U.S. combat troops from Baghdad and other cities, a sentiment not shared by their government.

The government declared the June 30 pullback National Sovereignty Day and celebrated it with a military parade and noisy street celebrations by Iraqi soldiers and police. But there was no spontaneous outpouring of joy by Iraqis since many of them did not see the move as significant, with some 130,000 U.S. troops remaining in the country.
"The celebrations were contrived, almost like a farce," said Salman Hassan, who runs an electrical supplies store in eastern Baghdad. "The Americans did not go anywhere far, they are on the outskirts of our cities."

Like many others in Baghdad, Hassan says he will not remember the Americans kindly. But, ironically, he says he finds comfort in the fact that the Americans remain close.

"Our forces are not ready yet to take sole responsibility. They need two more years to be ready to defend us."

The withdrawal from the cities, which was completed Tuesday, is part of a U.S.-Iraqi security pact that lays the ground for a full U.S. withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Most troops pulled back to bases outside urban areas, but the U.S. military left an undisclosed number behind to train and advise the Iraqis. The U.S. military has refused to reveal their number, fearful of feeding any criticism that the Americans aren't honoring the pact or casting doubt on the ability of the Iraqis to handle security alone.

The ambivalence felt by most Iraqis over the 2003 U.S.-led invasion appears to have been duplicated over the departure of the Americans from the cities. Many are happy to see them go, yet they are not convinced their army and police are ready to protect them as well as maintain the security gains made over the past two years.

Conflicted feelings toward the Americans has been deepened by image-transforming changes the U.S. military introduced to the way troops interact with Iraqis. They swapped their heavy-handed tactics of the war's early years with a culturally sensitive approach since 2007 that won over much of the population and isolated the militants.

"Not every one of us felt the same about the Americans," said Atta Zeidan, co-owner of a Baghdad book store.

"There is no universal resentment or hatred for the Americans. Love or hatred of the Americans has in large part depended on everyone's personal experience," he said.

Al-Maliki appears to have none of the mixed sentiments Iraqis have about the withdrawal.

While Iraqis went about their normal daily business, al-Maliki declared the pullback a victory for the country and heaped lavish praise on Iraq's forces but made no mention of the U.S. role in reducing violence since 2007.

Iraq's security forces, which number 650,000, have spent years in the shadow of their better equipped and more disciplined U.S. mentors, learning counterinsurgency tactics, intelligence gathering techniques and combat skills.

But the Iraqis continue to struggle with logistics and professional conduct. It is not uncommon to see soldiers at checkpoints speaking on their mobile phones or dozing off while sitting aside in the shade.

They also lack reliable networks for fuel distribution, equipment repairs and salary payments. Chipping away at the public's confidence in their abilities is the adoption by some of the younger soldiers of an "American look" - dark, wraparound sunglasses, bandanas and knee and elbow pads - accessories Iraqis see as alien to their military traditions.

Many Iraqis also see hints of sectarian bias in the Shiite-dominated security forces, particularly the national police, and a disregard for human rights. There have been numerous reports in recent weeks about the torture of detainees in jails run by Iraq's interior ministry, which oversees the police, but the government insists that offenders risk the full weight of the law.

"They are not trusted by people," said Haidar Mohammed, a 28-year-old government employee from eastern Baghdad. "Many are not professional soldiers, their loyalty is to their political parties."

Nothing of substance has changed in Baghdad since June 30, except that thousands of additional Iraqi troops and police have deployed across the city, backed in potential troublespots with tanks and armored vehicles. The lines at some of the hundreds of checkpoints have grown longer, possibly because of more thorough checks.

The city is no longer constantly buzzed by low-flying American helicopters and there were no American soldiers in sight during several tours of the city over the past few days.

However, U.S. jet fighters flying at high altitude occasionally scream across the Baghdad sky.

Al-Maliki's confidence in his security forces appears to be unwavering, but many see that vote of confidence to be linked to his political ambitions. Parliamentary elections are due in January and his chances for a second term in office depend heavily on whether recent security gains endure and the timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces is adhered to, with all combat U.S. forces out of the country by August 2010 and the rest by the end of 2011.

His failure to publicly thank the Americans in his June 30 address or mention that some American troops are staying behind in Baghdad and other cities as advisers and trainers are clearly designed to project a politically beneficial image of himself as a nationalist leader who oversaw the growth and improvement of Iraq's armed forces.

"Al-Maliki is clearly trying to take advantage of the June 30 withdrawal so he and his party improve their chances in the elections," said Hassan Raheem, a 46-year-old Baghdad businessman.