Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Despite risks, country of Iraq is eager for U.S. drawdown

Americans see progress, though hot spots remain By Aamer Madhani USA TODAY BAQOUBA, Iraq � While out on patrol here one recent night, Army Sgt. Andrew Frame kept hearing the same message from Iraqis: Please don't leave yet. One Iraqi, Amer Habeeb Huwaid, 30, said he feared that once U.S. troops were gone, no one would push the government to provide security or basic necessities, such as electricity. "The voice of 100 (Iraqis) does not equal the voice of one American," Huwaid told Frame. Another concerned Iraqi, Shaker Alwan, 44, said he and his family recently abandoned their home after four bodies with slashed throats were dumped at a traffic circle in their neighborhood. "The Iraqi army is strong now, and they will get better," Alwan said. "But I don't want the Americans to leave completely. I want to be able to walk around at midnight and feel safe. Then the Americans should leave." As a June 30 deadline approaches for most U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities after a six-year occupation, much of the country is eager for the change. Vast areas including Baghdad have seen security improve dramatically and, while some tensions linger between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, major combat operations have drawn to a close. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government says it's ready to provide security and assume other responsibilities that have been performed largely by Americans since the 2003 invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. Yet there are still trouble spots in Iraq where militant groups such as al-Qaeda retain considerable power, setting off suicide bombs and terrorizing the population in the hope of staging a comeback nationwide. One of those places is Baqouba, a city of 400,000 just 35 miles north of Baghdad. Despite its proximity to the capital, there have never been enough troops available to fully eradicate the militant groups operating here, even during the U.S. troop "surge" of 2007-08. In recent years, as al-Qaeda in Iraq was evicted from one Iraqi city after another, Baqouba became a kind of capital for the insurgents to regroup, said Lt. Col. Shawn Reed, the U.S. Army battalion commander in charge of the city. Here, the prospects following the departure of U.S. combat troops are far less certain. "I think there's progress being made here," Reed told USA TODAY. "But … if Iraq falls backward and heads toward civil war, this is where it's going to be." Reed and his soldiers won't be going too far away � the security agreement reached last winter with the Iraqi government stipulates only that U.S. combat troops leave cities, towns and villages by the June 30 deadline. That means that, in Baqouba as elsewhere, most American troops will shift to military bases outside the city limits, where they'll still be available for combat operations if needed by their Iraqi counterparts. An unspecified number of troops will also stay behind in cities to advise and train Iraqi forces. The total number of U.S. troops in Iraq is not set to decline significantly until this fall, when a gradual drawdown will begin until all combat troops are out by Aug. 31, 2010, according to the withdrawal plan announced by President Obama in February. Still, the departure of Americans from neighborhood security outposts and other strategic footholds could give militants the space they need to rebound in places like Baqouba. The U.S. military is worried enough that Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander for Iraq, publicly offered in March for his troops to stay past June 30 in Baqouba and Mosul, a violence-ridden city in the north. That offer was rejected by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who said the time has come for the Iraqi government and military to take charge. "Don't worry if some security breach occurs here or there," al-Maliki said in a speech Saturday. "They are trying to destabilize the situation, but we will confront them." Hours after he spoke, a massive truck bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque outside the northern city of Kirkuk and killed at least 75 people � the deadliest single attack this year. Al-Maliki's decision to stick with the deadline carries major risks. But Army Sgt Frame, who on his sweep through Baqouba heard one Iraqi after another plead for his troops to stay, thinks it's the right call. "Is there still a need for Americans' help?" Frame said. "Yes. But there is also a need for us to back out of the way. As long as we're here, they'll depend on us. If we get out of the way, we're forcing them to start making it on their own." The problems in Baqouba are the same ones seen elsewhere in Iraq � they're just worse here. The city has an uneasy mix of religious, ethnic and tribal groups that are still killing each other as they struggle for power and resources. Electricity services are spotty, undermining public faith in the government. And it's unclear whether Iraqi security forces can keep the peace. Col. Burt Thompson, who oversees Diyala province, which includes Baqouba, said the area provides a useful illustration of problems that still need to be fixed nationwide. "How Diyala goes is how Iraq goes," he said. Reed, the U.S. commander, said security has improved since 2006, when Iraq's insurgency peaked. Back then, he said, the U.S. military controlled only the provincial government's headquarters and the nearby city council building � and they were regularly attacked by mortars and suicide bombers. Dozens of destroyed buildings still dot Baqouba's landscape. Now, Iraqi forces patrol most of the city. Shops have reopened and markets bustle with people. Since March, significant acts of violence have fallen in the province by nearly 89%, according to Maj. Chris Hyde, a 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team spokesman. Yet, unlike more peaceful parts of Iraq, Baqouba's streets empty shortly after sunset, and the government enforces a 10 p.m. curfew to curb violence. Suicide bombings and assassinations still occur regularly. Among those who don't want the Americans to leave: Diyala's governor, Abdel-Nasir al-Muntasirbillah, who has received death threats, according to Thompson. "He has said to me: 'I want you � coalition forces � only to secure me. … I don't want you guys to leave,' " Thompson said. "I said, 'Boss, I can't do that. It's your rules, and we've got to abide by them.' " Even at the governor's headquarters � which, in theory, should have the best security around � there are questions about the competence of Iraqi forces. In a recent meeting, an Iraqi commander told Reed he had confidence in only about 110 of the 150 guards charged with the building's protection. The other 40 still need training, the commander said. The other main pillar of security here � the so-called Awakening groups, mostly former Sunni insurgents who are now paid by the government to keep streets safe � is also in doubt. Reed said that, since January, the federal government in Baghdad has failed to pay about 1,000 Awakening members in Diyala, leaving them and many others disgruntled. Also, about a quarter of Awakening members in Diyala are still waiting for the government to transform them into Iraqi security forces or offer other jobs as promised, Reed said. Both issues have posed a problem throughout Iraq. One possible explanation cited by Thompson: the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad may be trying to dilute Sunni influence ahead of nationwide elections next January. He said that, in recent months, the interior ministry has removed or reassigned several Sunni police officers here. "Let's face it. This place is about power and influence," Thompson said. "Prime Minister al-Maliki wants to stay in power. … Diyala was (Shiite). It went Sunni. Do you think they're going to let it stay that way? I don't think so." The possibility of an open power struggle scares many Baqouba residents, who remain uncertain whether the worst violence has passed. Alwan, the man who saw the four bodies dumped in his neighborhood a few months ago, said one of the men was still alive when an ambulance arrived. Scared that they might be seen by the insurgents helping someone they wanted dead, the ambulance crew picked up the three corpses and left the other man to die, Alwan said. "Thanks to God, the situation is much better now," he said. "It is still dangerous, but not like before. God willing, it will stay calm after the Americans leave."

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