WASHINGTON (CN) – Americans met a long awaited and much anticipated deadline Tuesday in pulling combat units out of Iraqi cities, but the death of four Americans the night before and a bombing on the day of the pullback strengthened concern that it will trigger further violence in a nation on sectarian edge.
“Today was an extremely important day for Iraq,” Commanding General Ray Odierno told reporters. He said he was “comfortable” with the pullback, but seemed less so with questions challenging the extent of the withdrawal.
Based on a security agreement signed last year between the United States and Iraq, Tuesday marks the first day that the remaining 130,000 American combat troops in Iraq must be out of all cities, leaving urban security to the Iraqi forces.
Although the Iraqi government called it National Sovereignty Day, and despite celebrations in the streets of Baghdad, many Iraqis stayed home for fear that the pullback of U.S. troops will insight violence that will perhaps lead to fighting between the Shiite and Sunni populations, two rival Islamic groups.
Outside experts said the pullback is less absolute than has been portrayed by both the U.S. and Iraqi governments. “We are still in bases just outside city centers,” said Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institute. “We are still embedded as trainers throughout the country,” he said, “and after all we still have 130,000 troops in the country.”
On Monday, four Americans were killed in Baghdad, and a car bomb exploded Tuesday. Odierno referred to additional “grand scale” attacks in Iraq within the 10 days leading up to the withdrawal.
“In order to meet our obligations under the security agreement, some U.S. forces will remain in cities to train, advise, and coordinate with Iraqi security forces,” Odierno said. There are also agreed upon procedures if Iraq feels it needs to invite American forces back into cities.
Under the agreement, U.S. forces will continue to secure the Iraqi border and areas outside the cities, and an unknown number of American troops will remain in cities to help Iraqi forces.
When Odierno was asked to estimate how many American units remain in the cities, he said the number changes each day and appeared to lose his cool when reporters persisted, rolling his eyes. “How many times do you want me to say that? I don’t know. It will be inaccurate,” he exclaimed, raising his voice. “It’s significantly lower than what it has been so far.”
Odierno spoke via a video link, with his face peering down from a large Pentagon screen onto a small group of reporters.
He expressed confidence in Iraq’s ability to maintain stability, noting that May was the lowest level of violence since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. “The last six months have gone better than expected,” he said.
The pullout heralded on Tuesday didn’t happen overnight. American troops have been out of the large majority of cities for the past eight months.
But the date is a marker in the broader withdrawal from Iraq. Over the last eight to nine months, American military presence fell by 35,000 troops, to its current stature at roughly 130,000. By the end of the year, plans are to only have 110,000 to 115,000 troops on the ground, with a drawdown to 50,000 by September of next year and complete withdraw of combat units by the end of 2011.
Odierno contrasted the stability today to what he called “the dark days of 2006,” when sectarian violence was so high, “it was hard to see a way out.”
Iraq’s national police force has grown into a professional force that wouldn’t be affected by sectarian violence, Odierno added, although he admitted that the local police are still susceptible.