The US is confident that Iraqi security forces are ready to take over responsibility for the country's cities when American troops pull back to surrounding areas. But some military and political concerns remain.
US troops will pull back to the countryside from urban areas
The date June 30, 2009 may just be another in the continuing struggle for normalcy in Iraq but it could prove to be one of the most significant of the country's recent, blighted history. On that day, US troops pull back from Iraqi cities, leaving Iraqi forces to take over control for security operations in urban areas. The Americans believe Iraq is ready for such a responsibility but unsurprisingly there are concerns.
"From a military and security standpoint it's time for us to move out of the cities," General Ray Odierno, the general in charge of US-led coalition forces told CNN on Sunday. "As for the Iraqis, I do believe they are ready," Odierno added. "They've been working towards this for a long time. Security remains good; we've seen constant improvement in the security forces, constant improvement in governance. I believe this is the time for them to take ultimate responsibility."
US troops have been pulling out of Iraq's cities before Tuesday's deadline as part of a staged withdrawal over the last eight months and "overall stability in Iraq remains good," General Odierno said.
Iraqi parliamentarians show confidence in home army
This feeling of optimism is shared by many Iraqi parliamentarians. Liberal Shiite representative Ayad Jamaleldin told Deutsche Welle that despite the continuing fragility of the war-torn country, he was confident that the Iraqi armed forces would be able to protect the country's citizens.
Iraqi security forces have the trust of many politicians
"Of course, the Iraqi armed forces are in a position to guarantee the security of the cities," he said. "They are even more effective than the multinational troops, because they can identify the different factions faster and better. In addition, they are more knowledgeable and better suited to deal with geographical factors."
Sunni representative Shadha al Abussi agreed. "We have much confidence in our own troops," he told DW. "I believe, if each citizen could contribute to the control of the situation in Iraq, we could record even greater successes."
Iraqi security services say they will meet the US withdrawal with their biggest deployment of troops and policemen in the six years since the US-led invasion of the country. Some 120,000 additional soldiers and police will be deployed to Baghdad alone, and thousands of others will be deployed to other cities.
Despite a spasm of violence including bombings that have killed more than 100 people this month alone, US President Barack Obama and his military are committed to their end-June withdrawal of American troops from Iraq's urban areas as part of a move from a war-like to a diplomatic footing with Baghdad.
The retreat is in line with last November's Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which set out a timetable for a complete US troop withdrawal from Iraq by 2011.
US troops to remain "on call"
US forces will operate between cities and on borders
Nonetheless, analysts said the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraqi cities will be less dramatic than it seems because the military, while less visible, can still intervene if Iraqi security forces appeal for help.
US forces will "still be conducting significant operations outside of the cities, in the belts of the major cities, and I still believe this will enable us to maintain the current security and stability situation here in Iraq," Odierno said.
US soldiers will continue to patrol the most conflict-ridden districts of the country outside the cities at the invitation of the Iraqi government and patrol borders. A few will remain in Iraqi cities in an advisory capacity.
Fears over renewed instability in potential power vacuum
Many fear attacks will increase when the US pulls out
Despite continued US military support, at least for now, the recent bomb attacks and on-going unrest between Arab nationalists and Kurds in the northern city of Mosul have raised concerns about an increase in violence in line with a reduction in US and allied involvement.
General Odierno blamed the recent attacks on "fractured extremist elements" and suggested that the bombings and unrest were designed to sow the seeds of doubt ahead of the US withdrawal.
"They're trying to use this time frame and this (pullout) date to first gain attention for themselves and also to divert attention from the success of the Iraqi security forces," he said, adding that the recent spike in attacks was not a sign of a broader increase of violence across the country.
EU involvement in Iraq at the mercy of US plans
The Iraqis and those concerned citizens in regional neighboring countries are not the only ones whose future could be cast into doubt by the partial US pull-out and then its final withdrawal.
Michael Bauer, a Middle East expert at the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich, believes the Europeans involved in Iraq have much to lose if the US withdrawal leads to an increase in violence.
Iraq's PM Nuri al-Maliki benefits from EU support
"Individually, European countries like Germany and France have been unwilling to engage in Iraq but the EU plays a large, important role in non-direct engagement," he told Deutsche Welle. "The EU is the main financial contributor to UN and World Bank projects there, it is involved in an energy dialogue and has recently upgraded its technical and co-operation agreement with Iraq into a partnership.
"The EU knows it can play a strong role in advancing administrative and electoral reforms," Bauer added. "These are its specific strengths and the EU can help the government through this."
However, Bauer said, if the US withdrawal leads to anarchy and civil war, the Europeans will be in no position to address the violence.
"These latest attacks are attempts by insurgents to stir up new sectarian violence and destabilize the country," Bauer said. "This was in some ways expected but what is in question is whether the Iraqis can govern through this and whether their army can provide protection when the Americans go. If not, all the EU initiatives in Iraq will be at risk."
A self-sufficient Iraq would welcome more EU aid
The US withdrawal could also lead to an increased effort by the EU if stability and security is maintained.
"The Europeans could step up and play a stronger role by expanding on their specific strengths once the Americans are gone," Bauer said. "This could help Iraq's full transition and also help the stability of the region as the EU has good diplomatic ties with many of the Arab states and to a certain degree, Iran. If Iraq can govern and protect itself, the EU could become a strong political and diplomatic partner."
Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge