Six Years On, Iraq Still Living Dangerously

BAGHDAD ~ The end of war and occupation is in sight, six years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, but the moment is loaded with danger as new Iraqi forces take over security from withdrawing US troops.

With a dramatic fall in death tolls since early 2008, US and Iraqi officials offer repeated assurances that everything is in place for a smooth transition.

However, two major bomb blasts this month that killed more than 60 people and maimed scores more served as gruesome reminders of the risks ahead of the March 20 anniversary of the 2003 invasion.

In just three months’ time, US forces are to withdraw from major cities and towns in a prelude to a total pullout from Iraq in 2011.

The US military sees a return to enough stability for Iraqi forces gradually to take responsibility, and it has been playing down fears of a return to high levels of sectarian strife or even all-out civil war.

The army argues that quitting the cities by June 30 – an official deadline in the US-Iraq security pact signed in November – will bolster urban security by allowing American troops to focus on catching insurgents in the countryside.

“The repositioning to peripheral locations in the city will improve security outside and in the city centres by choking off supply chains,” says Baghdad’s deputy US commander Brigadier General Frederick Rudesheim.

“We will have combat operations in the city but they just will not emanate from the cities. There is no cessation of combat operations.”

About 140,000 US troops are deployed in Iraq today – down from a peak of more than 160,000 during the 2007 “surge” against insurgents and Al-Qaeda.

That year, 17,430 Iraqis died in violence. In 2008, 6,772 people were killed. The first two months of 2009 saw 449 die, the lowest official statistics since the invasion.

Iraq began to assume control of security from January as the US mandate from the United Nations expired, and largely peaceful provincial elections – the first polls since 2005 – followed at the end of that month.

That made it easier in late February for US President Barack Obama to order an end to US combat in Iraq by August 31 next year. Up to 50,000 US troops will remain under a new mission until the end of 2011.

However, the latest bombings in the Baghdad area raised new concern and prompted calls for a comprehensive security review – in apparent contradiction of assurances from Prime Minister Nuri al-Malki that the bombs were just blips.

“The attacks in the past days represent a serious deterioration in the security file and there must be a review of this issue,” Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi said.

An Al-Qaeda front outfit, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed the March 8 police academy suicide attack that killed 28 people and the radicals were also blamed for the suicide blast at a tribal meeting two days later.

The US military describes Al-Qaeda in Iraq as severely weakened but still able to mount bloody attacks.

A key milestone in the gradual transition to Iraqi control is due to be passed on April 1 when the Shiite-led government takes full charge of 90,000 US-backed Sunni Arab militiamen.

The “Sahwa” or “Sons of Iraq” militias played a vital role in driving Al-Qaeda fighters from Baghdad in the first half of 2007 but the government has long eyed them with suspicion.

The integration of the Sahwa (Awakening) – a decentralized network of Sunni militias – could prove a strong foundation for further efforts at national reconciliation.

Many were in insurgent groups or tribes which battled US and Iraqi forces after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime.

But they rallied to the US military in late 2006 to fight Al-Qaeda linked jihadists and recorded a series of victories, notably on the blood-soaked streets of Baghdad.

Finding jobs quickly for the 90,000 men will be crucial, says Colonel Jeffrey Kulmayer, reconciliation chief for the US army in Iraq.

Maliki has mandated that 20 percent of the militia will join the new security forces and more than 3,000 have already become policemen. The other 80 percent were to be offered jobs in various ministries.

The prime minister makes almost daily appeals for Shiites and Sunnis to end violence and unite to build a better future.

But no one dare suggest the bloodshed is over yet.

On top of the rump Al-Qaeda fighters, Baath party hardliners led by Saddam’s number two, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, reject reconciliation and vow to fight the “traitors” to the finish.

Obama has emphasized that US withdrawal gives Iraqis full responsibility and a chance for a better future. “Now, we must ask the Iraqi people to seize it.”

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