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U.S. troops pull back from Iraq's cities

Iraqis celebrate on Monday night in Baghdad as U.S. troops pull out of the country’s urban areas.  The deadline to leave is today.

Associated Press

Iraqis celebrate on Monday night in Baghdad as U.S. troops pull out of the country’s urban areas. The deadline to leave is today.

BAGHDAD — Iraqis danced in the streets and set off fireworks Monday in impromptu celebrations of a pivotal moment in their nation's troubled history: As of today, this is no longer America's war.

Six years and three months after the March 2003 invasion, the United States will withdraw its remaining combat troops from Iraq's cities and turn over security to Iraqi police and soldiers. While more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed soldiers in hulking vehicles will largely disappear from Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq's other urban centers.

"The Army of the U.S. is out of my country," said Ibrahim Algurabi, 34, a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen now living in Arizona who attended a concert of celebration in Baghdad's Zawra Park. "People are ready for this change. There are a lot of opportunities to rebuild our country, to forget the past and think about the future."

The looming deadline has also created enormous fear and uncertainty among many Iraqis, who believe that the U.S. military pullback will open the door for insurgents to increase their attacks. On Monday, some normally congested streets were virtually deserted after dark, as Iraqis appeared to heed warnings of impending attacks by insurgents.

But city streets were also largely empty of Humvees and U.S. troops. Those Iraqis who ventured out were in the mood to party, celebrating a moment that the Iraqi government has said represents its return to full sovereignty.

"Out, America out!" a group of sweat-drenched young men chanted Monday at a Baghdad park as the sun was setting. They jumped up and down to the deafening beat of drums and the wail of horns.

Across town, the virtual absence of American troops and helicopters, the cheerfulness of Iraqis in military uniform, and the cries of joy gave this scarred, bunkered capital a rare carnival-like atmosphere. Iraqi police and army cars were decked with ribbons, balloons, plastic flowers and new flags. A few Baghdadis drove under the sweltering midday sun honking horns as passengers hung out the windows waving flags and yelling euphorically.

In Basra, the sentiment was inscribed on walls with spray paint: "No No Americans." Another graffiti artist instructed: "Pull your troops from our Basra, we are its sons and want its sovereignty."

Banners were strung around Baghdad proclaiming: "On the day of sovereignty, we're lighting candles for a better future."

Anchors on state-run television wore folded Iraqi flags over their shoulders, and the station kept a graphic of a small Iraqi flag waving under the date "6/30" on the top left corner of the screen.

At the Zawra Park celebration, one of the largest in the country, revelers sang songs popular during the war between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s.

"To the front lines we go," they sang. "Our bullets in our magazines." Then, spraying water from bottles at the crowd, they began chanting: "America has left! Baghdad is victorious!"

Iraqi policemen, many wearing body-armor vests without plates, bobbed their heads, taken by the moment.

Americans now enter a new phase in this war. As of Wednesday, they will have to behave as guests in a foreign land.

"There was a time here where we had pretty much carte blanche to do whatever we wanted to do," Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, the top U.S. spokesman in Iraq, said recently. Going forward, he added, "all missions are coordinated with the Iraqi government."

As Americans adapt to the vaguely defined terms of the security agreement that set today as the deadline for soldiers to leave the cities, there is little talk among U.S. commanders and diplomats of engineering a victory in the 2 1/2 years they expect to remain here.

Some officials have begun saying privately that the best-case scenario would be to depart with a "modicum of dignity."

Doing so will mean contending with a resilient insurgency, volatile politics and a growing assertiveness among Iraqis whose patience with the U.S. presence wore thin long ago.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the cities a "great victory," but did not mention the more than 4,300 U.S. troops lost in Iraq, or the billions of American tax dollars spent here. Between now and the August 2010 deadline by which the U.S. combat mission in Iraq is slated to end, U.S. troops will retain a significant, if less visible, presence in Baghdad as well as Mosul, in northern Iraq, and Basra, in the south.

U.S. soldiers anticipate that they will have to defer to Iraqi leaders and commanders more often than not to conduct business in the cities.

With scores of urban outposts shut, a greater percentage of American soldiers are being deployed to the borders and the belts around Baghdad and Mosul, where U.S. commanders hope they will be able to interdict militants and weapons. All troops must withdraw by 2012.

"Right now we are balanced on a knife's edge," said Hamid Majeed, a Sunni speaking near the rubble of a Shiite mosque that was blown up in 2006 in Ghazaliya. "We do not like the Americans, but we also thank God when we see them with the Iraqi army, because we know we can trust them more than the government forces."

The New York Times contributed to this report.

U.S. troops pull back from Iraq's cities 06/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 30, 2009 6:29am]
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