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Iraqis watch US combat troops pull out with fear
BAGHDAD, AUG 20 (Agencies):
Published on 20 Aug. 2010 11:45 PM IST
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Iraqis danced in the streets when US troops withdrew from their cities a little more than a year ago. After the last American combat brigade trundled across the border into Kuwait on Thursday, reversing a journey that began more than seven years ago, there was no rejoicing.
Instead, a mood of deep apprehension tinged with bitterness is taking hold as Iraqis digest the reality that the American invaders who they once feared would stay forever are in fact going home - at a time when their country is in the throes of a political crisis that many think could become more violent. ''I'm not happy at all. I'm worried. They're leaving really early,'' said Wissam Sabah, a carpet seller in a Baghdad shopping districts. ''We don't have a government and we don't know what is going to happen next. Maybe we will go back to civil war.
''The situation is getting worse every day. The politicians are inflaming the situation, there is a battle between them, and I am 100 per cent certain it will be reflected in the streets.''
US combat operations in Iraq will not officially end until August 31, the deadline set by Barack Obama for the reduction of the force to 50,000 people involved in ''stability operations''.
But with the departure to Kuwait of the last combat brigade, the formal battle mission is essentially over. In the coming days, 2000 more personnel from units scattered around the country will leave, bringing the number remaining down to the 50,000 promised by the President.
The US military stresses that is still a sizeable number of soldiers, and that they will be equipped with considerable firepower. Fighter jets and attack helicopters will remain, as will about 4500 Special Forces members who will continue to carry out counterterrorism missions alongside Iraqi counterparts.
The soldiers staying behind have been rebranded from combat troops into six Advise and Assist Brigades, which will focus on mentoring Iraqi security forces until the December 2011 deadline for the departure of all US forces under the terms of a 2008 security agreement between Iraq and the US.
But many Iraqis worry that the time is wrong for a drawdown whose date was a result of Mr Obama's campaign promise to bring troops home. Parliamentary elections in March that were supposed to cement Iraq's fledgling democracy have instead triggered a destabilising political stand-off between ethnic-tinged factions that received roughly similar numbers of votes and cannot agree on who should be in charge.
''Some people think it's a run-out. An irresponsible withdrawal,'' said a Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman. ''This is about what's going on in America, not about what's going on on the ground.''
On the ground, there has been no dramatic deterioration in security, at least not yet. But many Iraqis are concerned about the recent rise in the number of shootings and assassinations across Baghdad and in the still-troubled provinces.
A rash of attacks on judges, traffic police, senior civil servants and members of the Iraqi security forces has stirred fears that insurgents are more ubiquitous than had been thought. A suicide bombing in Baghdad against army recruits on Tuesday, in which 63 people died, called into question the Iraqi security forces' ability to take care of its own, let alone the safety of ordinary citizens.
''I'm surprised they're going because the situation is really uncertain, really tense,'' said Mohammed Khalid, 22, whose toy shop is lined with blonde-haired dolls dressed in pink and a fearsome array of plastic rifles, pistols and automatic weapons. ''The Americans should stay until the Iraqi army can control Iraq,'' he said.
The effect of the withdrawal may be more psychological than real. US and Iraqi officials point out that US forces have for the past year played little part in securing the urban centres where the insurgency is most active. US troops were redeployed to the outskirts of the cities in June last year under the terms of the 2008 security agreement, and Iraqi forces have been in charge since.
General Babakir Zebari, the chief of staff of the Iraqi armed forces, predicted that the shift in the US mission would have no serious impact, and said he was confident the Iraqi security forces could maintain stability.
A group of Iraqi soldiers standing guard beside their US-supplied Humvee on a main street in Baghdad did not seem so sure, however.
One soldier, asked if security would deteriorate with the departure of the Americans, replied: ''Of course, because we have no government.''
Another made it clear he was not happy to see the Americans go. ''I wish they had taken me with them,'' he said. ''I don't want to be here.''

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