BAGHDAD (Reuters) - U.S. combat troops prepared to leave the last of Iraq’s cities on Tuesday, a move hailed by authorities as restoring sovereignty and applauded by Iraqis even as they voice fears it may leave them more vulnerable.
By midnight on Tuesday, all U.S. combat units must have withdrawn from Iraq’s urban centers and redeployed to bases outside, according to a bilateral security pact that also requires all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
The last U.S. combat troops left central Baghdad on Monday, withdrawing to two large bases near the capital’s airport, and withdrawals from other cities were underway. Some troops tasked with training and advising Iraqi forces will stay behind.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said the United States had closed or returned to local control 120 bases and facilities in Iraq, and they were scheduled to turn over or shutter another 30 by the end of Tuesday. Officials gave no further details.
The Iraqi government is planning banner celebrations for June 30, which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has declared “National Sovereignty Day,” a public holiday.
Festivities will include a military parade in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone government and diplomatic compound, viewed by Iraqis as the ultimate symbol of the foreign military presence until Iraqi forces took control of it in January.
Iraqi forces began their own celebrations on Monday, decking Humvees and other vehicles with flowers and Iraqi flags. Signs were draped on Baghdad’s ubiquitous concrete blast walls reading “Iraq: my nation, my glory, my honor.”
Maliki has called Tuesday’s withdrawal a “victory” and compared it to rebellions by Iraqi tribes against the former British empire in 1920. Many Iraqis see it as restoring their pride six years after the U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein turned into a multi-year foreign occupation.
“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.”
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 that they can redeploy if needed.
Militants appear to have stepped up attacks in the past week, including two of the biggest bombings in more than a year that killed 150 people between them, raising doubts about whether Iraqi forces are ready to handle security.
On Monday, a car bomb killed 10 people in Mosul, north Iraq.
“These are some extremist elements who are trying to bring attention to a movement that’s fractured,” General Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told CNN on Sunday.
“We are still at low levels of overall violence.”
With the tit-for-tat violence that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out sectarian civil war in 2006-2007 receding, many Iraqis agree with that assessment.
“These explosions are mere bubbles in the air; they shall come to an end one day,” said Ahmed Hameed, 38, unemployed.
In any case, analysts say Iraq has to take the plunge eventually, with President Barack Obama planning to end the U.S. combat mission by Aug 31 next year.
“If the U.S. wants to execute its exit strategy successfully they’ll have stop holding Maliki’s hand at some point,” said Tim Ripley, of Jane’s Defense Weekly. “This is as good as any.”
But the political situation remains unsettled. Tensions have grown between officials in Baghdad and minority Kurds in Iraq’s north, and all eyes in coming months will be on national polls in January that will test Maliki and Iraq’s untested 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.
Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed, Missy Ryan, Daniel Wallis and Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Ralph Boulton