Jubilation in Iraq on Eve of U.S. Pullback -- Withdrawal of Combat Troops From Cities Also Stirs Fear

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

BAGHDAD, June 29 -- 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 Tuesday, 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. Iraq remains a perilous place for the American troops stationed here, and they continue to be the top target for extremist groups. 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 on Monday, 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."

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