In Iraq, festivities and mixed feelings

DIYALA PROVINCE, Iraq — At the peak of Iraq’s civil war it was not uncommon for militants to leave killing fields littered with bodies in the open desert outside of Fawal Kamel Sadah’s village of Mufriq. Nearly a month ago, an execution site dating back to that time was discovered, serving as a reminder of the hard times just recently overcome.

But today with security markedly improved, Sadah is still not optimistic about the future. His village still only has limited access to electricity and clean water. With the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. forces from major cities a day away, Sadah, a trash sorter, knows he must look increasingly to his own government for help.

“I don’t think anyone will fix the water or electricity problems,” he said. “Iraqi government officials are thieves.” Asked if he sees any hope for the future, he responded, “Never.”

While there is much excitement about the pending U.S. pullout of major cities on June 30 — it’s has already been declared a national holiday — for many Iraqis there is an undercurrent of concern as their fate becomes increasingly dependent on their own government.

“Literally every home you go into it’s a different answer,” said Capt. Joey Williams, assistant operations officer for the 1-5 Infantry Battalion. Williams has worked with other soldiers and military advisers to track the mood of Iraqis in Diyala as the June 30 deadline has drawn near. “You go into some houses and they’re ready for us to leave and others want us to stay.”

Americans will no longer patrol cities after Tuesday, but they will be able to enter urban areas if Iraqi authorities invite them. They will remain active in rural areas throughout the country.

Located just north of Baghdad, the Diyala Province is home to all three major ethnic groups in Iraq — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Consequently, during the civil war it was home to some of the worst infighting and there remain lingering political issues with the Kurds in the north of the province.

Although security is increasingly less of an issue, locals have fresh memories of the worst fighting and the periodic attacks that still shake the province. Now that the U.S. is finally showing signs of withdrawing, many residents in Diyala are wondering if their security forces and government can keep the peace.

“Everybody says that when the Americans leave the security is going to change. It’s going to get worse,” said Mohamed Rasheed Abu Thaya, a shop owner in Diyala Province. “The Iraqi security forces aren’t ready even though security is good now.”

Among locals, the Iraqi military and police have suffered from a bad reputation. At the peak of the violence, masked death squads often arrived in villages wearing Iraqi military or police uniforms, sometimes even driving official vehicles. Whether these attacks were carried out by security forces or militants who had stolen their uniforms and equipment, they sowed the seeds of mistrust among the population.

Additionally, Iraqi security forces developed a reputation for damaging residents' homes during routine searches and many view them as corrupt and ineffectual.

However, within the last several years, the Iraqi security forces have grown considerably as a professional fighting force. They have received much more training and experience and grown substantially in size — police and military forces combined are now about 600,000 strong.

Now, in many regards, one of their biggest challenges will be proving themselves to the Iraqi people.

“Some people are saying that we can’t control our cities without Coalition Forces, but we’ve got to prove to them that we can control our cities,” said Iraqi Army Capt. Thamer Ahmed Mohamed, a commander in Diyala.

Indeed, many residents are ready for their military to take the helm, but they still want Coalition Forces as backup.

“I think it’s good that Americans are leaving the cities, so the Iraqi Army and police will take more responsibility, but if you leave Iraq altogether the security will get much worse,” said Khalif Saleh, a retired soldier in Diyala.

Still security improvements have also shone light on many deficiencies in Iraq that have long been an issue but took a back seat at the peak of the nation’s violence.

In many government offices, there has been a marked increase in corruption since the fall of Saddam Hussein, said some residents. Now carrying out any number of bureaucratic chores, such as getting the necessary permits to purchase a house, can require Iraqis to bribe up to 20 officials in some cases.

“Corruption is very bad in the government. I have to give them money to get anything done,” said Hamra Imbara, who used to work in the Daughters of Iraq community policing program, but was recently laid off. She adds that the Americans often helped her with certain civil issues. “Who will listen to our complaints?” 

More on the Iraqi withdrawal:

Iraq fails the democracy taste test

Long, hot summer looms in Iraq

Obama's speech: The view from Baghdad