Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 30, 2009 11:00 AM
Six years and three months after the March 2003 invasion, the United States has withdrawn its remaining combat troops from Iraq's cities, the U.S. commander here said, and is turning over security to Iraqi police and soldiers.
Washington Post foreign correspondent Ernesto Londono was online from Baghdad Tuesday, June 30, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the pullout, its significance and security concerns.
While more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in the country, patrols by heavily armed soldiers in hulking vehicles have largely disappeared from Baghdad, Mosul and Iraq's other urban centers. Iraqis danced in the streets and set off fireworks overnight in impromptu celebrations of a pivotal moment in their nation's troubled history. The government staged a military parade to mark the new national holiday of "National Sovereignty Day," and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a triumphant, nationally televised address.
Ernesto Londono: Hi folks. Greetings from Baghdad, where a slight sand storm has given this city a bit of a gloomy feel during a day in which Iraqis are observing the departure of U.S. troops from urban areas. Plenty of ground to cover, so lets begin.
Fairfax, Va.: This first phase pertains to the urban centers, the cities. What about the outlying areas of these particular cities? Are they not included in the count or is there still American military presence in those locations?
Ernesto Londono: Thousands of troops remain in cities, primarily Baghdad and Mosul, in the north. But they will only conduct combat operations if the Iraqis ask Americans for help on specific missions that they don't think they can handle alone.
As their presence in the cities dwindles, a greater number of American troops are being sent to the outlying areas of Baghdad and Mosul, where they will still conduct "full spectrum" operations, in the words of U.S. commanders. That means they'll still be able to do raids, etc. But U.S. commanders are saying that they will no longer carry out missions without partnering with the Iraqis -- even in rural areas, where in theory they still can.
More troops are also being deployed to outposts near the Syrian and Iranian borders. The thinking is that they, and those based in the outlying areas of the cities, will help interdict extremists and weapons.
It'll be interesting to see how that plays out and the extent to which the Iraqis will be able to handle security in the cities with little help from the Americans.
Colorado Springs, Colo.: At the beginning of June, one particular combat unit was based at Phoenix Base Camp, with weapons and combat vehicles, ready to go fight the enemy. At that time, they were categorized as a combat unit.
Today, that same unit is at the same Base Camp with the same people, the same equipment and the same capabilities. But now they are categorized as a "training" unit.
Are the Iraqi people fooled by this rebranding? The American people aren't. .
Ernesto Londono: That's a great question.
There are still plenty of U.S. combat troops in a handful of bases in Baghdad and Mosul. U.S. commanders say that all troops are combat troops. What changed June 30, they say, is the nature of their mission. Those who were primarily doing combat operations -- lethal operations, in military speak -- will now focus almost exclusively on capacity building and other "non-lethal" missions.
But there's nothing stopping an Iraqi Army commander from asking the Americans to partner on a raid. In that sense, I think we're likely to continue seeing American combat forces doing conventional combat operations in the cities, albeit fewer.
One of the key unanswered questions is how often the Iraqis will ask the Americans for help on these types of missions. My guess it that it will vary widely from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Dublin, Ireland: "National Sovereignty Day" seems a bit far-fetched for a country in which, according to an article, still has 130,000 American troops in their country; as Iraq is faced with depending on their own security forces, won't the civil war just rise more to the surface?
Ernesto Londono: The Iraqis have long wanted to be in charge of their cities. And for years, the task was just too daunting.
There are mixed views about the symbolism of declaring today their Sovereignty Day. Some Iraqis say they still feel like an occupied country. Others see it as a key turning point and a moment to celebrate.
Some think the U.S. withdrawal will unleash a civil war.
The ingredients are certainly there, as ethnic and political divisions remain pretty wide -- and a lot of the core issues here remain unresolved.
Many Iraqis hope they will manage to resolve these key issues -- distribution of oil wealth, disputed boundaries in the north, etc -- through negotiation.
Only time will tell.
Philadelphia, Pa.: How well prepared do the Iraqi troops appear to be to take over the roles given to them by the withdrawing American troops?
Ernesto Londono: Great question. It varies. The Iraqi Army is generally given higher marks than the police forces.
In some parts of Baghdad and other cities, I think they'll do fine. Morale seems to be healthy and their training has improved a great deal.
I think the biggest problem they will face in the months head will be logistics issues. Things like having spare parts for vehicles, getting people paid on time, getting gas for their vehicles, generators for their stations.
The Americans have for years out out fire after fire on the logistical side of things because they didn't want the Iraqis to fail. That's commendable, but I think it has created an unhealthy dependency.
Boston, Mass.: My son is in the 82nd at FOB Loyalty in Bagdad, but I haven't heard from him for a few weeks. Am I to assume he's been moved somewhere else?
Ernesto Londono: Possibly. Sometimes when troops get moved to other bases they have trouble setting up internet for personal use. And the cell phones here are awful.
Have you tried keeping track of him on facebook?
I personally still subscribe to the no news is good news idea.
Hope you hear from him soon.
Texas: What is the Iraqi government doing to improve the cities' infrastructure? Is there still a distrust from some of the Iraqi security forces and the population?
Ernesto Londono: This is a complaint I hear a lot from American soldiers. They don't think the Iraqi government is doing enough to improve infrastructure and fix the substantial quality of life problems here.
I think there's growing confidence in Iraqi security forces. But many Iraqis still don't trust them. I think Sunnis, in particular, are skeptical that security forces that just years ago were deeply infiltrated by death squads have been cleansed.
It will be interesting to see how the relationship between citizens and Iraqi security forces evolves when the Americans are no longer around the block to field complaints and act as a buffer.
Crofton, Md.: Ernesto:
In your report today, you noted the older woman, an evicted squatter who hadn't eaten in a few days. You've also seen some pretty tough civilian conditions in places like Mosul.
What, if any, role is U.S. reconstruction/civilian aid, based on public support for U.S. disentanglement, likely to play in the next year in Iraq?
Ernesto Londono: I think we'll see less and less.
The State Department has teams of diplomats and experts who work on reconstruction and capacity-building projects in most Iraqi provinces.
The number of teams and their staffs are dwindling, though. Because many of these teams depend on the U.S. military for security and transportation, their ability to move around is likely to be somewhat restricted under the post July 1 rules.
American commanders still have millions of dollars at their disposal for civic projects and reconstruction. But some are worried that effective oversight will become challenging as they have fewer boots on the ground, particularly in urban areas, and more mobility restrictions.
Boston, Mass.: Former VP Cheney said this week that he was worried that the U.S. pullout from Iraqi cities on June 30th would potentially jeopardize the sacrifices made to date by U.S. troops. But wasn't it the Bush administration, of which he was a principal, that agreed to this pullout timeline? Why didn't he speak up publicly then and fight more forcefully against the agreement if he felt so strongly instead of trying to lay down another potential "I told you so" now when he is out of power?
Ernesto Londono: The Bush administration, which negotiated the agreement, resisted setting firm draw down deadlines. But the Iraqis were adamant and they prevailed.
Tampa, Fla.: Do you see the Kurds declaring independence any time soon? Even short of independence, the Turks have indicated they might invade if the Kurds attain de facto independence by controlling their own oil resources.
Ernesto Londono: I don't see that happening any time soon. The Kurds have been pretty diligent in carving out a large piece of the political pie in Baghdad. I think they want to remain influential in the capital. But anything is possible.
Middlebury, Vt.: Tommy Ricks thinks that the insurgency is poised for its own 'surge' once the drawdown gets further. We've already seen car bombings, and I'm recalling Rick Atkinson's series ("Left of Boom") on the ineliminable rate of IED fatalities. Are Iraq's forces ready?
Ernesto Londono: Well, the dress rehearsal is over. The era that starts today will be the biggest test they've faced.
But I also think it's important to remember that the Iraqis will still depend on American support in the months ahead. They have dozens of teams of advisors embedded with Iraqi units and Iraqi officers at the platoon and company level still have the Americans on speed dial.
This disentanglement will be gradual.
Boston, Mass.: Will there ever be "peace with honor" and a substantially full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq when Iran can so easily turn up the spigot of chaos and make it seem like we are leaving in defeat? Didn't we empower Iran in this way the moment we decided to invade? The only way to take that power back from the Iranian leaders is to topple them as well, right? Is that what the Bush administration planned all along but couldn't achieve once they got bogged down in Iraq?
Ernesto Londono: The evolution of Iranian influence here as the U.S. loses leverage and firepower will be fascinating to watch.
The thinking among U.S. commanders is that Iran will try to make their departure as bloody and humiliating as possible.
But many Iraqis loath what they call Iranian intervention in Iraqi politics -- and I think we're starting to see a backlash that will make it harder for Tehran to call the shots here.
Wilmington, N.C.: Since the troops are pulling out completely in 2012, are there now preparations going on re preparation for transporting or sale of equipment. Are some personnel being returned to State side now as the troops are leaving the urban settings? Thank you for addressing my question.
Ernesto Londono: Yes. There's a general in charge of the "responsible draw down." She has spent the past few months trying to figure out how to move out equipment and how to do it.
I think the Americans are likely to leave behind quite a bit. In many cases, it won't be cost-effective to ship things back. It will be a herculean task. Some of these bases are quite literally small cities. And it will take some time and effort to take them apart without compromising security.
Some units that return to the United States are not being replaced. I think we're likely to see a steeper withdrawal after the national election in January.
Anonymous: Is it really true that with the turmoil going on in Iran there is less violence going on in Iraq because the Iranians are minding their own business? Thanks.
Ernesto Londono: There actually has been quite a bit of violence here in the past few days. Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander of U.S. troops, today said Iran is responsible for some of it.
washingtonpost.com: Photo: Iraqis celebrate in Baghdad (AP, June 29)AP - Iraqis celebrate in Baghdad, Iraq, Monday, June 29, 2009. To mark the milestone, fireworks colored Baghdad's skyline and thousands of people attended a party in a city park late Monday where singers performed patriotic songs. U.S. troops will be out of Iraqi cities by tomorrow Tuesday June 30 in the first step toward winding down the American war effort by the end of 2011.
Princeton, N.J.: Is there any evidence that the many divisions in Iraq are being overcome? I do not mean only the Shia -- Sunni division, but also the Kurd vs. Arabs and Turkmen over Kirkuk, the problem of the 1,000,000 (mostly displaced) Christians, the 500,000 Yazidi who are hated by all, the Badr vs, Mahdi conflict roiling the South, the local Police vs. the National Police , etc., etc., etc.
Is corruption getting any better?
Does anyone besides Maliki believe that many of the 4.5 million refugees can return to their homes?
Is there more drinking water, electricity, less smuggling of oil, more jobs?
And so on.
The metaphor for Iraq is not the Pottery Barn; it is Humpty Dumpty.
Ernesto Londono: The ethnic and sectarian divisions remain deep.
I think it's interesting, however, that we haven't seen Shiite strike back at Sunnis after recent large bombings. I don't know whether the cycle of sectarian violence can be reignited and what it would take. But Iraqis seem to be a lot more restrained.
In the north, the tension between Kurds and Arabs remains a huge concern. In some areas it's conceivable that it could turn bloody. But so far it hasn't come to that.
Maliki says fighting corruption is a top priority. But it remains endemic. It plays out in pretty much all spheres of life here. I don't think it will be easy to root out, but acknowledging the problem is a good start.
Refugees have been slow to return. I think many want to wait and see the first phase of the U.S. withdrawal play out before they pack their bags.
Ernesto Londono: Folks, time's up. Thanks for your interest in Iraq news and for reading us.
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