By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 9, 2009
BAGHDAD, March 8 -- The U.S. military announced Sunday that 12,000 American soldiers would withdraw from Iraq by September, marking the first step in the Obama administration's plan to pull U.S. combat forces out of the country by August 2010.
In setting the deadline last month, President Obama declared that the United States would restrict itself to achievable goals before departing. The timing of Sunday's announcement underscored that Iraq is likely to remain dangerous, turbulent and vulnerable to major acts of bloodshed during an American withdrawal.
Only hours before the announcement, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle plowed into a crowd gathered at the entrance to the police academy in Baghdad, killing 28 people and wounding dozens more. Survivors recounted scenes of mayhem and carnage in the bombing's aftermath, as ambulances tried to force their way through snarled traffic and police fired in the air -- either in confusion or, fearing a second bomb, to try to disperse the crowd.
By afternoon, there was little sign of the attack, save for the shattered glass that littered the asphalt. A tattered poster left over from January's provincial elections hung from a bridge pillar. "With the blood of our martyrs, Iraq is liberated," it read.
Under the administration's plan, major reductions in the more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq would be postponed until after elections scheduled for December to choose a new parliament, a vote that nearly everyone in the country sees as a potential watershed moment. A U.S.-Iraqi agreement negotiated last year requires all U.S. troops to depart by the end of 2011, a deadline that Iraqi officials reiterated Sunday. "The Iraqi government has no intention to accept the presence of any foreign troops or bases after 2011," said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman.
But long before then, the posture of the U.S. military will have changed dramatically. Under the U.S.-Iraqi agreement, American troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June, and Obama last month ordered that two combat brigades scheduled to replace forces in Iraq be deployed to Afghanistan instead. The departure of the brigades scheduled to leave Iraq by September would leave 12 still in the country. An F-16 squadron, along with some support units, also will depart, as will the remaining 4,000 British soldiers, who are based in southern Iraq.
At their peak, U.S. troops numbered more than 165,000. As many as 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq even after combat troops leave, to conduct training and what officials describe as counterterrorism operations.
"We are by no means complacent," Maj. Gen. David G. Perkins, spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said in announcing the withdrawal. "We know that al-Qaeda, although greatly reduced in capability and numbers, still is desperate to maintain relevance here."
Perkins said remaining troops would be redeployed around the country. Although attacks have diminished dramatically, parts of Iraq remain remarkably violent. An insurgency still rages in the northern city of Mosul, along one of the country's ethnic fault lines. Diyala province, with its mix of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs, has remained dangerous, despite repeated Iraqi and U.S. offensives to quell fighting there.
"We will not leave any seams in regards to security," Perkins said. "We know how to do this. This is not the first time we've reduced our forces."
Even Iraqis adamant about ending the American presence, which began when the United States invaded and occupied the country in early 2003, worry that violence may grow worse amid the withdrawal. Although Dabbagh said Iraq was "returning to a normal situation," U.S. officials acknowledge that attacks like Sunday's will probably remain a part of Iraq's landscape. Echoing a view often repeated by the military, Perkins suggested that such high-profile attacks were a sign of desperation after the success of January's elections and the negotiation of the U.S.-Iraqi agreement.
Violence, he said, was at its lowest levels since the summer of 2003.
"When al-Qaeda senses that it is under extreme pressure and it is losing momentum, it works very hard to gain relevance and to regain momentum," he said.
In Sunday's attack, the assailant detonated bombs that were strapped to his body and the motorcycle in a heavily guarded part of Baghdad that is home to the Oil Ministry and other military and government offices. The entrance to the academy was fortified with blast walls, but the crowd, standing about 20 feet away under a bridge, was exposed to the traffic.
The men had gathered outside the academy in the hopes of becoming recruits. Survivors said police had left them waiting in the street for more than two hours without any instructions, and some expressed anger at their vulnerability.
A bombing Dec. 1 struck the same academy, killing 15 people.
"We didn't know what was going on. They told us to come forward, then they pushed us back. Forward, then back," said Ali Farraj, who has been trying to earn admission to the academy for three years. "They wouldn't tell us anything."
At al-Kindi Hospital, the names of 58 wounded were scrawled on a piece of notebook paper attached to the gray marble entrance with surgical tape. Bystanders helped illiterate relatives scan the list for names of their family members.
"I don't see his name," one woman cried. "Where's his name?"
Hanoun Hussein stood with his 20-year-old son Assaad, who he had driven to the academy after seeing a recruitment announcement on television the night before. His son had a bandage over his eye. He had lost his hearing in the explosion.
"Why would they leave them outside?" the father asked. "Why wouldn't they let them in? Why leave them in the street? It's so dangerous out there."
Special correspondents Qais Mizher and Aziz Alwan contributed to this report.