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Iraq regains control of cities as U.S. pulls back

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq regained full control of its towns and cities on Tuesday as U.S. troops pulled back, six years after the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi soldiers march as they take part in a parade during the transfer ceremony of Baghdad's old defence ministry building June 29, 2009. U.S. troops pulled out of Baghdad on Monday, triggering jubilation among Iraqis hopeful that foreign military occupation is ending six years after the invasion to depose Saddam Hussein. REUTERS/Mohammed Ameen

Though some Iraqis fear the first step in a full U.S. withdrawal may leave them open to attack, the government declared “National Sovereignty Day” a holiday and held a military parade to flex its muscles at a still stubborn insurgency.

“This day, which we consider a national celebration, is an achievement made by all Iraqis,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a televised address, as citizens drove around the streets with flags and plastic flowers draped over their cars.

“Our incomplete sovereignty and the presence of foreign troops is the most serious legacy we have inherited (from Saddam). Those who think that Iraqis are unable to defend their country are committing a fatal mistake.”

By midnight on Tuesday, all U.S. combat units must have withdrawn from Iraq’s urban centres and redeployed to rural bases, according to a bilateral security pact that requires all U.S. troops except for trainers and advisers to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

In a bloody reminder of the war unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion, the U.S. military said four U.S. soldiers based in Baghdad had died of combat-related injuries on Monday. It gave no further details.

150 BASES

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States had closed or returned to local control 120 bases and facilities, and would turn over or close another 30 by the end of Tuesday.

The day’s festivities included a parade in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic district, viewed by Iraqis as the ultimate symbol of the foreign military presence until local forces took control of it in January.

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Thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police paraded on foot or in U.S.-donated Humvees, armoured cars and tanks -- in the same compound beside a monument to the Unknown Soldier where Saddam’s forces used to stage elaborate displays of power.

The state television channel, Iraqiya, has been running a countdown clock in a corner of its screen.

And across Baghdad, signs were draped on the ubiquitous concrete blast walls reading “Iraq: my nation, my glory, my honour.”

“We still have important steps to take and we know our way forward is not easy,” Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told Reuters at the parade.

“We need to develop our intelligence gathering and technical abilities, because the next war is an intelligence war.”

Maliki has compared the U.S. pullback to rebellions by Iraqi tribes against the former British empire in 1920. Many Iraqis see it as restoring their national pride, six years after the U.S. invasion to oust Saddam turned into a foreign occupation.

“WE CAN TAKE CONTROL”

“Definitely, our forces can take control of things now,” said Dawood Dawood, 38, who owns a bathroom appliance shop in downtown Baghdad. “The U.S. withdrawal is a positive step.”

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Some fear a resurgence of violence without the presence of U.S. forces to police Iraq’s cities, although their bases outside remain close enough for them to redeploy if needed.

Militants have stepped up attacks in the past week, including two of the biggest bombings in more than a year, which killed 150 people between them.

But the tit-for-tat violence that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out sectarian civil war in 2006-2007 has receded.

In any case, Iraq has to take the plunge eventually, with President Barack Obama planning to end the U.S. combat mission by August 31 next year.

The political situation remains unsettled. Tensions have grown between Baghdad and the minority Kurds in Iraq’s north, and all eyes will now be on a parliamentary election in January that will test Maliki and Iraq’s fledgling democracy.

The troop deadline coincides with the government’s first major energy tender since 2003. Scores of foreign oil executives have flown into Baghdad for a chance to bid for major fields in Iraq, which has the world’s third largest oil reserves.

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