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1st Pullout Deadline Stirs Anxiety, Pride in Iraq

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 29, 2009

BAGHDAD, June 28 -- Salah al-Jbory is in no mood to celebrate.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called on his countrymen to revel Monday to mark the ostensible departure of U.S. troops from Iraqi cities by the end of the month -- a turning point he calls a "major victory."

But across Iraq, the first major deadline in the American military's phased withdrawal from the country is being viewed with a mix of apprehension, pride and incredulity.

"I will celebrate when I see my country living in peace," said Jbory, a tribal leader in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, where no U.S. outposts remain. "I will celebrate when there is electricity and clean water, when people go to the park and feel safe. I'll celebrate when kids on the street look clean and are wearing new clothes. I will celebrate when people can earn a living."

American troops have been thinning out across Baghdad and other restive cities in recent months. Since Jan. 1, the U.S. military has shut down more than 150 bases and outposts.

In deference to the security agreement that set the pullout deadlines, American troops in and near urban areas have begun avoiding nonessential outings during the daytime and will be on virtual lockdown during the first days of July.

But they expect to continue conducting patrols in urban areas alongside Iraqi security forces in the months ahead.

"On 1 July, we're not going to see this big puff of smoke, everyone leaving the cities," Brig. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, a spokesman for the U.S. military, said recently.

Nonetheless, some Iraqis see the date as an independence day of sorts.

"The 30th of June will be like a wedding," said Maj. Gen. Abdel Amir al-Zaidi, commander of the Iraqi army's 11th Division, currently in the northern city of Kirkuk. "It is a victory for all Iraqis, a national holiday."

That sentiment is far from unanimous. Violence has spiked in recent days as insurgents have sought to make calls for jubilation seem like hubris. A string of bombings last week, including powerful ones in Kirkuk and the eastern Baghdad district of Sadr City, killed more than 200 people.

"We are not happy now," said Abu Noor, a college student, standing outside a market in Ur, a neighborhood in northeastern Baghdad. "Why should we be happy? We know that things will turn upside down after maybe a week of the withdrawal. We all know that the militias are hiding because they know the Americans are inside the cities and are ready to be there at a moment's notice."

Many Iraqis have come to regard the presence of U.S. troops in their neighborhoods as a necessary evil. Their hulking trucks often tear down overhead electrical lines, bog down traffic and jam cellphone signals. But those indignities are a small price to pay, Abu Noor said.

"They're trivial when you compare it to the importance of security," he said.

Miles away, in a central Baghdad district where attacks remain frequent, police officer Ala Abdul Majid stood at a small bunker-turned-checkpoint watching cars pass during a recent sweltering afternoon.

"Iraqis are able to handle the job," he said, brimming with confidence. He paused before adding: "At least 80, 90 percent."

He's happy to see the Americans fade into the background, he said. It's time. But they have done more good than bad, he said, providing Iraqi security forces with uniforms, spare parts for vehicles and generators for police stations. If rumors of an uptick in attacks after July 1 prove true, he said, Iraqis will do their best with what they have got.

"We don't have equipment, no radios," he said, suddenly sounding less optimistic. "If someone came here at night and killed us, no one would know about it."

In a country where perception often matters more than reality, some Iraqis see the June 30 deadline as little more than symbolic. After all, more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain on Iraqi soil, and a mass drawdown is not expected until after the Iraqi general election in January.

"The U.S. withdrawal from cities is only propaganda for Maliki" and President Obama, said Farhad Rashid, 44, a schoolteacher in Kirkuk. "How could they leave after sacrificing thousands of their sons here? How could they leave Iraq as a gift to Syria and Iran?"

For Jbory, the withdrawal happened months ago, when American troops left the small combat outpost near his home.

This time last year, Jbory was a busy man. Maliki named him head of a local support council that was to act as the eyes and ears of the government. The Americans, meanwhile, appointed him to oversee the transition and rehabilitation of inmates they released back into his neighborhoods. His office was always crowded and his calendar booked. He said he grew to regard the U.S. troops who came to him seeking information and counsel as his sons.

One night last winter, they left their small outpost quietly, never to come back.

"I'm in charge of rehabilitation of detainees," he said, smoking a Davidoff cigarette with a plastic filter. "And no one told me they were leaving."

Insurgents remain in Dora, Jbory said, and despite his affiliation with Maliki's political machine, he has little trust in the government, which largely cut him off after provincial elections in January.

Asked whether he's optimistic about the future, he shrugged and smiled.

"They are either going to put me in prison or kill me," he said with resignation.

But he's not losing sleep yet, Jbory said. He has the phone number of an interpreter who works with a U.S. Special Forces unit based in Baghdad's Green Zone.

For now, if need be, he said, the Americans can still dash in on a moment's notice.

Special correspondents Dalya Hassan and Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.

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