By Ernesto Londoño and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 1, 2009
BAGHDAD, June 30 -- At least 34 people were killed in a car bombing Tuesday in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, marring a national holiday declared to celebrate the departure of U.S. combat troops from the country's cities.
Also Tuesday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of four soldiers Monday in an attack south of Baghdad, a grim reminder of the vulnerability of U.S. troops as more of them are deployed to rural outposts.
The car bomb in Kirkuk detonated shortly after 6 p.m. at Shorja Market, wounding scores of shoppers and damaging several shops, Iraqi police officials said. Farhad Aziz al-Barzanji, a physician at Kirkuk's Azadi Hospital, said 91 people were injured.
Mustafa Mahmoud Kirkukly, a construction worker, ran to the market after the blast to look for his brother, who owned a cellphone shop there.
"I saw his dead body," Kirkukly said. "They want to fuel sectarian strife again. Their goal is a civil war."
Against the backdrop of continuing violence, Baghdad residents marked the U.S. pullback with a military parade, and a few took to the streets to honk their car horns and wave flags. However, many people stayed home on a day made gloomy by a light sandstorm, and the city was mostly quiet.
Meanwhile, Iraqi and U.S. leaders billed Tuesday as a milestone and expressed confidence in the abilities of Iraqi security forces as they formally assumed control of cities.
"This day, which we consider a national celebration, is an achievement made by all Iraqis," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in Baghdad. "Those who think that Iraqis are unable to defend their country are committing a fatal mistake."
In Washington, President Obama called the long-planned move an "important step" toward a complete U.S. pullout from the war that began six years ago, but he also predicted more violence.
"There are those who will test Iraqi security," he said. "I'm confident that those forces will fail. The future belongs to those who build, not those who destroy."
Obama said the partial pullout was part of a strategy for ending the war responsibly. "The Iraqi people are rightly treating this day as a cause for celebration," he said.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, called the date a "significant milestone" and said U.S. forces would no longer conduct unilateral operations anywhere in the country.
Despite the recent spike in violence, Iraqis have every reason to be proud, Odierno said, calling Tuesday "a celebration of them taking responsibility for security of their own cities."
He said a "small number" of American soldiers would remain in Baghdad and other cities as trainers and enablers. But the military's focus is shifting to outlying areas of the capital and the northern city of Mosul, as well as to Iraq's borders with Iran and Syria.
Odierno said the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is likely to continue carrying out attacks in the weeks ahead and to seek to consolidate its foothold outside Mosul. He noted that the group is increasingly striking in relatively quiet areas, where the security presence is thinner, but predicted that the tactic would not reignite sectarian violence.
Odierno accused Iran of continuing to train, fund and equip "surrogates" who he said have carried out recent attacks. "They have not stopped," he said. "I think they will continue to do that."
Ensuring adequate protection for the repositioned U.S. troops is a priority, Odierno said, as they occupy hundreds of small bases outside the cities while continuing to supply troops to work with Iraqi forces inside the cities. Making sure that roads U.S. convoys will travel are cleared of bombs is also "a big concern," he said.
Odierno said he would carry out a 45-day assessment of the impact of the troop pullout and recommend adjustments as needed in August.
In September and October and again after elections in January, he said, he will make further decisions on the pace of U.S. troop withdrawals. He said he expected an initial reduction to bring the force to about 120,000 in December before it drops to about 50,000 by September 2010.
Iraqi security forces have made significant strides, Odierno said, giving him confidence they are capable of steadily assuming responsibility for Iraq's internal security. However, he said local police forces remain vulnerable, saying they are the contingent "we probably worry about the most."
Overall, he said, progress in implementing the troop withdrawal plan over the past six months has left him optimistic about further security gains. "I thought the first six months of implementing the security agreement would be very, very difficult, but it hasn't," he said.
Monday's attack and another that killed a U.S. soldier in Baghdad on Sunday are reminders that American troops continue to be targeted, Odierno said. "There are still people out there who do not want the government of Iraq to succeed," he said.
Tyson reported from Washington.