Subscribe

MUQDADIYAH, Iraq — Brightly colored tinsel adorned a large tent seating dozens of dignitaries, a canned version of the Iraqi national anthem blared, and local leaders gave fiery speeches about Iraqi sovereignty during a celebration of Tuesday’s deadline for U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraqi cities.

Behind closed doors, however, there was a different tone.

“Keep in mind, you have to come every single day,” Muqdadiyah police Col. Anad Hussein Ali implored U.S. Army Capt. Tom Hondo just before the celebration.

The withdrawal has been hailed as a great victory by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and American commanders have praised the progress of Iraqi security forces.

Across the country, though, there is deep concern about the readiness of Iraqi forces to confront an active insurgency that still wreaks violence, including a string of bombings concentrated in Baghdad recently.

Under the terms of a security pact between the U.S. and Iraq, American combat forces are now to act on an on-call basis in cities. Most combat outposts inside city limits — the cornerstone of Gen. David Petraeus’s widely hailed counterinsurgency strategy — have been left behind.

Around Diyala province, there’s still much worry. American commanders say Iraqi police have improved in Muqdadiyah, the province’s second-largest city, but recent incidents show they are still infiltrated by insurgents.

More than a dozen police were arrested two weeks ago for ties to militants, and police are suspected of shooting at a U.S. convoy recently. Tensions persist between Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers, who have pushed ever farther south into the province, and Arab Iraqi army soldiers, though U.S. forces point to a recent joint operation as proof of an improved relationship.

Some of the concerns in Diyala stem from sectarian issues. The Shiite dominated security forces are especially distrusted in Sunni Arab and Kurdish areas, and Americans are seen as a neutral force.

Ishmail Ibrahim, who leads a group of “Sons of Iraq” outside of Muqdadiyah, said that when Americans accompany Iraqi army or police during searches of Sunni areas, residents feel safe.

“When they don’t have the American army, they don’t,” Ibrahim said.

Hondo, part of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, spent much of Tuesday reassuring old allies that U.S. soldiers would not be abandoning them. During a meeting with Ali, Hondo said it’s vital to maintain connections with Iraqi leaders despite the new rules.

“It took countless hours, countless packs of Marlboros, countless cups of tea to build that relationship,” he said.

Hondo said he feels the Iraqis are ready to take more control and that June 30 is just the official start of a change long in the works.

“We’ve been pulling back anyway, we’ve been getting ready for this,” he said.

Northwest of Baghdad, kids in villages have greeted U.S. soldiers with goodbyes the last few days.

But these soldiers — Company C, 1st Battalion, 112th Infantry Regiment, 56th Stryker Brigade — are not leaving. In fact, they’ve stepped up the frequency of their patrols in recent days to convince residents the Americans will remain in the area long past the historic June 30 deadline.

Baghdad celebrated Monday with fireworks and parades as the Iraqi army took over operations in the capital and other major population centers. U.S. troops in the country — still 131,000 strong — have moved the bulk of their forces into bases around the rings of those cities and further into the countryside.

But the political speeches and public celebrations have made for confusion in the countryside, where units like Company C live and work.

The troops here are concerned that confusion will lead to more violence this week. On Monday, the company found two roadside bombs buried on a main route that they drive each day.

“We’ve seen more action in the last 24 hours than in the last two months,” the company’s commander, Capt. Nick Buchheit, said Monday.

Luckily, the majority of that action has involving finding bombs before they detonate.

Equally frustrating is trying to convince allies in the area that the Americans will be around the rest of the summer. Even the sheiks in the area, who work closely with the U.S. troops and control many of the hired guards called “Sons of Iraq,” don’t believe the company will remain at their base in Hor Al Bosh.

“They think we’re leaving,” said 1st Lt. Brian Gural, the leader for the company’s 2nd platoon.

For the past five months, these Pennsylvania guardsmen have been patrolling 15 to 18 hours a day. They’ve scaled back those hours slightly in the past few days, but only because of the heat, Gural said.

“They still don’t believe it,” Buchheit said. “I keep telling them.”

In Diwaniyah, a city of about 450,000 midway between Baghdad and Basra, thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers paraded with military equipment and vehicles past a large grandstand next to an amusement park.

A brass band played and each Iraqi unit cheered loudly as it passed the grandstand, where political and tribal leaders sat with a few U.S. soldiers, including Lt. Col. Steve Miska, the commander of U.S. forces in Qadisiyah and Najaf provinces.

Iraqi officials made speeches calling for cooperation among security forces to keep the country safe. They compared the U.S. withdrawal from the cities to an earlier withdrawal of British forces from Iraq many decades ago.

Iraqi 400-meter hurdles champion Alaa Huseen Ali, 28, of Diwaniyah, who competed in the Athens Olympics, said the parade marked the day when the Iraqi people took charge of their own security.

“It’s time for the police and the army to be in charge,” he said.

Iraqi army Lt. Col. Adel Iessa, 56, of Baghdad, said all Iraqis were waiting for the day U.S. forces withdrew.

“Now they want to know exactly how the Iraqi forces will do this job without people to support them,” he said. “It’s like an examination.”

Iraqis have wasted a lot of time and lost many lives since Saddam fell, he said.

“Everybody should work like two men,” he said. “Now we should run fastly.”

One of a few U.S. soldiers who attended the parade, Sgt. Pelenato Allaimaleata, 37, of Samoa, said the strong show of Iraqi military and police strength at the parade made it clear that they could take care of themselves.

After the parade, Miska, who felt safe enough to show up without body armor, found himself surrounded by Iraqi reporters asking him about the pullout.

“Is the Iraqi intelligence agency ready? What do you think of the withdrawal of Americans from here? Is the withdrawal going to be total?” the reporters asked.

Miska repeated a mantra that the Iraqis are ready and that they have been handling security for some time.

“We’ll still have forces on [Forward Operating Base] Echo [outside the city] and we will continue to do training as requested and pass on intelligence as requested,” he said.

The only time Iraqis will see U.S. military vehicles in the cities will be when they are escorting Provincial Reconstruction Teams alongside Iraqi security forces, he added.

One of the reporters, Ahmed Jakim of Iraqi television station Al Rasheed, said most Iraqis are happy to see the U.S. forces leave the cities, but concerned about the future.

“We have a feeling both of happiness and a feeling of fear that in coming days things could deteriorate because there are so many factions,” he said.

author picture
Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now