Unease settles over Iraq after pullout of U.S. combat brigade

By Liz Sly
Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD – Iraqis danced in the streets when U.S. troops withdrew from their cities a little over a year ago. After the last American combat brigade trundled across the border into Kuwait early Thursday, reversing a journey that began more than seven years ago, there was no rejoicing.

Instead, a mood of deep apprehension tinged with bitterness is taking hold as Iraqis digest the reality that the American invaders whom they once feared would stay forever are in fact going home – at a time when their country is in the throes of a deep political crisis that many think could turn increasingly violent.

“I’m not happy at all. I’m worried. They’re leaving really early,” said Wissam Sabah, a carpet seller in one of Baghdad’s shopping districts. “We don’t have a government and we don’t know what is going to happen next. Maybe we will go back to civil war.

“The situation is getting worse every day. The politicians are inflaming the situation, there is a battle between them, and I am 100 percent certain it will be reflected in the streets.”

U.S. combat operations in Iraq won’t officially end until Aug. 31, the deadline set by President Barack Obama for the reduction of the force to 50,000 troops involved in what the military calls “stability operations.”

But with the departure to Kuwait of the last combat brigade this week, the formal battle mission is now essentially over. In the coming days, 2,000 more troops from units scattered around the country will depart, bringing the number remaining down to the 50,000 promised by the president.

The U.S. military stresses that it is still a sizeable number of troops, and that they will be equipped with considerable firepower. Fighter jets and attack helicopters will remain, as will about 4,500 Special Forces members who will continue to carry out counterterrorism missions alongside Iraqi counterparts.

The soldiers staying behind have been rebranded from combat troops into six Advise and Assist Brigades, which will focus on advising and mentoring Iraqi security forces until the December 2011 deadline for the departure of all U.S. forces under the terms of a 2008 security agreement between Iraq and the U.S.

But many Iraqis worry that the time is wrong for a drawdown whose date was a result of Obama’s campaign promise to bring troops home. Parliamentary elections in March that were supposed to cement Iraq’s fledgling democracy have instead triggered a deeply destabilizing political standoff between ethnic-tinged factions who received roughly similar numbers of votes and now cannot agree on who should be in charge.

“Some people think it’s a run-out. An irresponsible withdrawal,” said Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman, echoing Obama’s pledge to bring about a “responsible withdrawal” of U.S. troops. “This is about what’s going on in America, not about what’s going on on the ground.”

On the ground, there has been no dramatic deterioration in security, at least not yet. But many Iraqis are concerned about the recent uptick in the number of shootings and assassinations across Baghdad and in the still troubled provinces.

A rash of targeted attacks against judges, traffic police, senior civil servants and members of the Iraqi security forces has stirred fears that insurgents are more ubiquitous than had been thought. A suicide bombing in Baghdad against army recruits on Tuesday, in which 63 people died, called into question the Iraqi security forces’ ability to take care of its own, let alone the safety of ordinary citizens.

“I’m surprised they’re going because the situation is really uncertain, really tense,” Mohammed Khalid, 22, whose toy shop is lined with blond-haired dolls dressed in pink and a fearsome array of plastic rifles, pistols and automatic weapons.

“The Americans should stay until the Iraqi army can control Iraq,” he said.