BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqis fretted about the ability of their armed forces to protect them from violence after U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday all U.S. troops would withdraw by the end of the year.
Washington and Baghdad failed to agree on the issue of immunity for U.S. forces after months of talks over whether American soldiers would stay on as trainers more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Obama’s announcement prompted worries among Iraqis over the stability of their country and a possible slide back into sectarian violence.
“I would be very happy with this withdrawal if our military and security forces are ready to fill the gap of the American forces. But I don’t believe they are. We can’t deceive ourselves,” said Baghdad shoe shop owner Ziyad Jabari.
“Our forces are still not capable of facing our security challenges. I‘m afraid this withdrawal will allow al Qaeda and the militias to return.”
A stubborn Sunni insurgency tied to al Qaeda and Shi‘ite militia still carry out lethal attacks in Iraq, where bombings and killings happen daily even though violence has dropped from the height of sectarian fighting in 2006-2007.
At least 70 people were killed last week as a series of attacks rocked the capital Baghdad.
In September, 42 Iraqi police and 33 soldiers were killed, according to government figures.
Iraqi security forces have been the prime target of attacks this year as insurgents seek to undermine security in the country ahead of the scheduled U.S. withdrawal by year-end.
“As an Iraqi citizen, I say to Mr. Obama, you will leave Iraq without accomplishing your mission,” said Munaf Hameed, a 47-year-old account manager at a private bank.
“No security, an unstable political regime, sectarian tensions and weak security forces, that’s what America will leave behind,” he said.
Some Iraqi leaders say in private they would like a U.S. troop presence as a guarantee to ward off sectarian troubles and keep the peace between Iraqi Arabs and Kurds in a dispute over who controls oil-rich areas in the north.
Iraqi and U.S. forces have said Iraq needs trainers beyond 2011 to develop its military capabilities, particularly its air and naval defenses.
The country’s power-sharing coalition made up of Sunni, Shi‘ite and Kurdish blocs is also caught in a political stalemate many Iraqis fear could worsen without a U.S. buffer.
“I think the fighting between the political blocs will increase because the U.S. presence was a safety valve for security and political issues,” said Muntadhir Abdel Wahab, 44, a Baghdad merchant.
But some Iraqis applauded the decision by Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and said the withdrawal of U.S. troops would help stabilize the country’s fragile political situation and quell sectarian tensions.
Many Iraqis still have memories of abuses committed by U.S. troops and contractors during the more violent years of Iraq’s conflict. That made securing immunity tricky for Maliki.
Iraqi lawmakers backing anti-American Shi‘ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political bloc is a key part of Maliki’s coalition government, said they would disrupt the power-sharing government if he agreed to keep U.S. forces.
“Iraq’s people will realize the necessity of living together in one country despite differences in religion, sect and nationality,” said engineer Mahdi Salim, who was visiting family in Kirkuk. “America tried to drag us into civil war.”
Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk; Writing by Serena Chaudhry