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Iraqis and American Soldiers Anxious Over U.S. Withdrawal From Sadr City

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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 17, 2009

BAGHDAD -- The unthinkable is happening in Sadr City as the U.S. military begins to shut down its outposts to meet a June 30 deadline to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

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Separation anxiety is growing among residents, local leaders and American soldiers in the sprawling, impoverished Shiite district that was once the most dangerous battlefield in Baghdad for U.S. troops.

"When the Americans leave, everything will be looted because no one will be watching," an Iraqi army lieutenant newly deployed there said. "There will be a civil war -- without a doubt," predicted an Iraqi interpreter. Council members have asked about political asylum in the United States.

Mohammed Alami, a local leader who calls himself the U.S. Embassy's unofficial representative in Sadr City, is among those expecting mayhem.

"This is the most dangerous decision being made," he said recently after a meeting at a U.S. outpost in Sadr City. "We will lose the security. The insurgents will come back. I will be the first one targeted."

The deadline, the first of three that chart the withdrawal of U.S. troops, will test Iraqi forces and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's assertion that his government stands ready to assume primary control over security. The Iraqi government insisted on the deadlines last year during the negotiation of a security agreement.

For the Obama administration, the deadline and the months that follow will be a key test of whether a campaign promise to withdraw "responsibly" is feasible. Some U.S. officials have begun to see it as a potentially perilous turning point, if violence surges as the military loses influence, mobility and combat power.

"The bottom line is they are not ready for us to give over the cities," a senior U.S. military official said on the condition of anonymity to speak critically of the Iraqis. "If we do, and all indications are that they will make us leave, we will be in a firefight to get back in and stop the violence. And we will lose soldiers."

De Facto Authorities

Several key details about the June 30 deadline remain unresolved. Iraqi leaders have not said how many, if any, mechanized units and outposts they will let the Americans keep in Baghdad and Mosul, a northern city riven by violence. And there is no consensus on the definition of combat troops.

The U.S. military built dozens of small combat outposts and joint security stations in 2007 as part of a strategy that helped turn the tide in a war that many at the time viewed as a lost cause. By injecting tens of thousands of American soldiers into volatile neighborhoods, the then-incoming commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, reversed course on his predecessor's goal of pulling back U.S. forces and leaving the Iraqis in the lead.

The first few months of the campaign were the deadliest in the war for American troops.

The inner-city outposts became the de facto authority in scores of neighborhoods in Baghdad and other largely lawless cities. Soldiers gathered timely street-level intelligence on Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents. They splintered extremist groups by putting thousands of insurgents on the payroll.


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