x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Bomb mars celebrations of US pullout from Iraqi cities

Security forces parade on national holiday even as many people voice fears of a return to bloody sectarian violence.

BAGHDAD // US troops pulled back from Iraq's cities yesterday in line with an agreement between Baghdad and Washington that should see US forces completely withdraw from the country by the end of 2011. The redeployment of 130,000 US soldiers, the vast majority of whom will now be stationed outside of urban areas, was greeted with street celebrations in Iraq's capital, part of a national holiday called for by prime minister Nouri al Maliki. Although most of the day passed without noticeable violence, a car bomb in a market area of the northern city of Kirkuk killed 26 and wounded 70. The blast occurred about 6pm in the Shurga district, an interior ministry official told Agence France-Presse. Kirkuk is plagued with intercommunal tensions among its 900,000-strong Kurdish, Turkoman and Arab population. Elsewhere in the country Iraqi security forces held victory parades to mark the handover of control, yet fears remained about an expected increase in violence in key trouble spots. "I do not know why people are celebrating this day," said Sheikh Mohammad Saleh al Khafaji, a leader in a US-allied Sahwa Council in Diyala province. "We are not celebrating here, we are very concerned about the situation." Diyala has been torn by sectarian and ethnic conflict involving Sunni and Shiite Arabs and its sizeable Kurdish minority since 2003. Baquba, the provincial capital, became notorious as a centre for al Qa'eda. Many of Iraq's refugees fled from Diyala and have yet to return. "I am sure the departure of US forces from the city will create a vacuum here and it may give power back to al Qa'eda," Sheikh al Khafaji said. "The truth is that the Iraqi security forces are still unable to take over responsibility here." Sahwa or "awakening" councils played a central role in weakening the grip of al Qa'eda-style extremists over Iraq. Sunni tribes, many of whom were allied with insurgents, decided to stop fighting the US forces and instead aimed their weapons at Islamic militants, in return for being put on US payrolls. The Sahwa scheme is now being administered by the Iraqi government, which was always suspicious of the tribal militias. Tribe leaders have recently started to complain that payments were stopping and that the resulting poverty may push disgruntled Sahwa fighters back into the insurgency. Iraq's authorities had pledged to keep up payments until other employment could be found for tribe members, something made even more difficult in the face of falling government income from oil. "The security situation will worsen and I hope that when it does the government security forces and the Sahwa will work together to stop terrorists," Sheikh al Khafaji said. "The Americans supported the Sahwa and we request that the government does not renege on its agreements. "We have warned of a return to violence in Diyala's cities but have not had a response to that warning from any government official." In Basra, a city that little more than a year ago was in the hands of Shiite militants, fears were similarly bubbling. British forces were responsible for Basra up until April, when they ended their six-year Iraq mission. US troops subsequently took over their role at Basra airport and trained local police and army units. "The security situation is not stable enough," said Abu Salaam al Basri, a 45 year-old Basra-based businessman. "I see the extremists and militias gradually taking over again now that the Americans are out. I see danger, which had gone for a while, is now returning." One of his key concerns is Muqtada al Sadr, the nationalist leader of the Sadr movement who has for months been studying Shiite law in Iran in an effort to upgrade his clerical credentials. The Sadr movement has significant grassroots support and, until recently, had a feared military wing, the Mahdi Army. Although the militia has been officially dissolved and sustained heavy losses in fights against the government, Iraqis - depending on their political affiliation - remain either concerned or hopeful that it will now make a comeback. "I understand that Muqtada al Sadr will return to Iraq soon and that he will have the title of ayatollah," Mr al Basri said. "My concern is that that will give him more power and that could end up in fighting, especially in southern Iraq." Further north in Kut, the capital of Wasit province, Alaa Alawi, a political science professor at the city university, said the US pullout had come too soon. "This may well cost a lot of Iraqi lives and blood," he said. "There has not been enough time to build strong Iraqi security forces but certain politicians want to write their names in history and say they won a victory for Iraq. "In reality I think most Iraqis, from north to south, are worried about the security situation and in Kut we are beginning to see abnormally high activity by militias and north of the city al Qa'eda is starting to operate again." The Iraqi government and US commanders have insisted that national forces are strong enough to keep security. And while US troops are to take a back seat, they will continue to provide combat and logistics support to the Iraqi military. If Iraqi forces request help the US military has made it clear it will step in and provide it. In an opinion poll released yesterday by CNN, three-quarters of US respondents supported the US military pull-out. But more than half said they expected violence in Iraq would rise as a result and a clear majority said that, if attacks did increase, the US should not send combat forces back into Iraqi cities. Despite lingering concerns about Iraq's future at home and abroad and regardless of the fact that tens of thousands of US troops remain on Iraqi soil, yesterday's pullout was widely acknowledged as a historic step. "This is a historic victory. I feel we have full sovereignty now that the Americans are on their bases outside of the city," said Jassem Makiya, 58, a lawyer from Baghdad. "It is a big challenge but I am sure the Iraqi government is strong enough to deal with it. "There will be some attacks but there were always attacks under the Americans. There is enough evidence now to show that the Iraqi forces are strong enough and we are on course for an end to US occupation once and for all in 2011." nlatif@thenational.ae