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US withdraws from Iraq cities

Analysis: Questions remain about the fate of security in Iraq as US pulls out of major cities.

BAQUBA, Iraq — Numerous American bases have closed across Iraq over the past several weeks as the United States prepares to withdraw from all cities by Tuesday as the next phase of its security agreement with Iraq.

At one dusty outpost on the fringes of Baquba, 60 miles north of Baghdad, Lt. Col. Matthew Anderson addressed a crowd of American and Iraqi military officials last Thursday as he gave control of the base to his Iraqi counterparts.

“The cumulative effect of these closures are steps along the path in Iraq’s return to a sovereign nation, a return to greatness not just in the Middle East, but also in the international community,” said Anderson, commander of the 2-8 Field Artillery battalion.

A number of questions remain about this phase of the U.S. withdraw: Will militants launch major attacks after the U.S. leaves the cities? Can Iraqi security forces maintain the recent security gains?

But U.S. and Iraqi officials say it is a critical step toward returning control of the country to the Iraqis and preparing for the 2011 withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from Iraq.

The city withdrawal is part of the security agreement called the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that went into effect at the beginning of this year. Though U.S. troops will leave their bases within city limits and stop patrolling urban areas, the agreement allows them to enter cities if invited and escorted by Iraqi officials. U.S. forces will also continue to actively patrol the countryside.

Weeks before the deadline, it remained uncertain whether US forces would withdraw from the insurgents’ last urban strongholds in Mosul and Diyala; however, at the request of Iraqi authorities they will leave both.

“We are still facing some activities from bad groups that are trying to reduce the improvements of the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Army in the area but we are capable of stopping them,” said Lt. Col. Amur Dawud Salman, an Iraqi Army commander in Diyala. “We will not give any room for the bad groups to take over. The places where the U.S. leaves, we will fill it up with our soldiers.”

Although the Iraqi security forces have grown considerably over the last several years, both in size and ability, many Iraqis are concerned that insurgents may try to exploit the reduced American presence and increase their attacks.

“The Diyala Province still needs to be supported by the coalition forces because we can still not be sure of the security after they leave,” said Ahmed Minhal Uwayed, a retired resident of Diyala.

Iraqi and American officials expect militants will test the waters when the agreement goes into effect. In Diyala both sides are optimistic that they will be able to manage the threats. Even though U.S. forces will not be patrolling the cities, they will be ready to provide air support and other combat assets for the Iraqis if they request it.