Baghdad on high alert as US forces pull out

Iraq’s security forces were on high alert on Monday in Baghdad as United States troops finalised their withdrawal from the conflict-hit nation’s urban areas, an event to be marked by a massive party in the capital.

The US pull-out, under a bilateral security accord signed last year, will be completed on Tuesday, which has been declared a national holiday.

In the wake of several massive bombings that have killed more than 200 people this month, soldiers and police were out in force in Baghdad.

All leave for security forces personnel has been cancelled in a reflection of the threat of attacks, and motorcycles, the favoured transport of several recent bombers, have been banned from the streets.

“Our expectation is that maybe some criminals will try to continue their attacks,” said Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf, the Interior Ministry’s operations director and spokesperson.

“That is why orders came from the highest level of the prime minister that our forces should be 100% on the ground until further notice.”

On Monday, the former Defence Ministry building in the capital, taken over in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion, was handed back to the Iraqi government.

“This marks the end of the rule of the multinational force,” said General Abboud Qambar, commander of Baghdad Operation Command, the central headquarters for the Iraqi security forces.

Festivities to mark “a day of national sovereignty” were to start at 6pm local time in Zawra Park, the biggest in the capital, with singers and poets kicking off proceedings before music groups take to the stage.

From July 1, Iraq’s security forces will take sole charge of security in the country’s cities, towns and villages.

In the first reaction from Iraq’s dominant Shi’ite Muslim community, Sheikh Ali Bashir al-Najafi, one of the country’s four supreme religious leaders, said the US withdrawal was a significant sign of progress.

“It is a step we hope to follow up by other steps to achieve independence and stability of the country, and it is a real test of the efficiency of the security forces to shoulder their responsibilities,” he said.

“Iraq will after this day be just like many other Arab countries where there is the presence of foreign troops organised according to agreements signed between the country and the government of those forces.”

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned earlier this month that insurgent groups and militias were likely to step up attacks in the run-up to the June 30 deadline in a bid to undermine confidence in Iraq’s own security forces.

There have been several large bombings since, the deadliest of which came in the northern city of Kirkuk on June 20, when a truck loaded with explosives was detonated, leaving 72 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

The toll from a bomb in a market five days ago in the Shi’ite district of Sadr City in north-east Baghdad was also bloody, killing at least 62 and wounding 150.

But al-Maliki and senior government officials have since insisted that Iraq’s 750 000 soldiers and police can defend the nation against attacks attributed to al-Qaeda-linked insurgents and forces loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Only a small number of US forces in training and advisory roles will remain in urban areas, with the bulk of American troops in Iraq, 131 000 according to Pentagon figures, quartered elsewhere.

The June 30 withdrawal is the prelude to a complete American pull-out by the end of 2011.

Although the Iraqi police and army remain fledgling forces, they have in recent months steadily taken control of military bases, checkpoints and patrols that used to be manned by Americans.

Iraq has also set up a joint operations centre—the Joint Military Operations Coordination Committee, based at Baghdad airport—which must give its approval before a US unit can intervene.

The Status of Forces Agreement, which set the pullback deadline, says US commanders must seek permission from Iraqi authorities to conduct operations, but American troops retain a unilateral right to “legitimate self-defence”.—AFP

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