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."
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 July 1, 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 June 30 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 long ago wore thin.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the cities a "great victory." He has not mentioned the thousands of U.S. lives 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 in order 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, the final date of a drawdown timetable that neither Iraqi nor American officials are inclined to change.
Although security has improved considerably in recent months, the past few days have been bloody for Iraqis and Americans -- and many remain deeply concerned about the ability of Iraq's security forces to control the cities without substantial U.S. help.
A bombing in downtown Mosul on Monday killed 10 people. A U.S. soldier was killed in combat Sunday, the military said Monday; attacks on U.S. forces occur almost daily.
Anticipating a wave of attacks during the transition period, Iraqi soldiers and policemen were out in full strength across the country on Monday. Lines at checkpoints were longer as policemen conducted thorough searches.
At the Zawra Park celebration, Suhaile Muhsian Khlaf, 60, dressed in a black abaya, began to dance with abandon, the lone older woman in a sea of mostly young men dressed in Western clothes.
She hadn't come to the park to celebrate, she said, stepping aside for a moment.
"Orphan," she said, pointing to her young grandson, who was clutching her hand.
The family was recently evicted from a house where they were squatters. They hadn't eaten well in days, she said.
"I came here because they told me there would be government officials," she said. "This hunger is killing us."
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah, Dalya Hassan, K.I. Ibrahim and Aziz Alwan in Baghdad and Aahad Ali in Basra contributed to this report.