Iraqi "independence day" arrives

BAGHDAD — A convoy of the Iraqi Army's Romanian-built tanks stretches out along the road to the Baghdad airport, ready to roll should the June 30 festivities — billed as a new Iraqi independence day — not go entirely as planned.

On Abu Nuwas street near the river, members of the Iraqi Communist Party are cheerfully putting up banners on a wire fence celebrating the "Day of National Sovereignty" — Iraq’s newest national holiday.

There is no shortage of symbolism in Tuesday’s date — the deadline in the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement for the withdrawal of American combat forces from the cities. U.S. and Iraqi officials are milking it for all that it’s worth.

“We are on the threshold of a new phase,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said this week.

It’s a turnaround for the U.S., which long insisted on a conditions-based withdrawal of its forces rather than a deadline. Top military commanders now say those conditions have been met — that Iraqi security forces are more competent than they were a year ago, and that the military surge which helped dramatically cut attacks in Baghdad has laid the groundwork for sustained security.

Despite the horrific spike in violence that killed more than 250 Iraqis in the last week, the attacks are not thought to pose the threat to the very survival of the Iraqi government or security forces they did when the country descended into civil war.

Officials, though, are bracing for more attacks around the Tuesday deadline from insurgents eager to test Iraq’s security capability.

And north of Baghdad, in the places where Sunni insurgents fled when they were driven out of the capital, it’s still a daily fight for Iraqi soldiers and police.

In Iraq’s second biggest city, Mosul, the new provincial governor, no fan of coalition forces, agreed last week that U.S. forces could keep five bases within the city where they work next to Iraqi forces. Instead of combat outposts, the bases will be known as joint security stations.

It’s an acknowledgement that although neither side likes to admit it, the country whose security forces the United States either destroyed or disbanded six years ago is not ready to stand entirely on its feet.

“Let’s be honest,” said Mayor Zuhair al-Araji in a meeting with the U.S. commander in Mosul last week. “How many thousands of police do we have in the city center — how many national police and soldiers and the coalition forces with all their technology and all their support ... if you pull all this logistical help, how is it all going to work?”

At another meeting with Iraqi National Police and Iraqi Army commanders, U.S. Army Col. Gary Volesky tried to figure out how they would make it work.

“I just want to make sure we all understand how we see operations on June 30 and how we can continue the relationship we have even with fewer forces in the city,” Volesky told his Iraqi counterparts, who responded that they still needed U.S. help.

Apart from the helicopters, medivac facilities and ability to clear roadside bombs, what the Iraqi forces need the Americans for is essential but largely invisible to most Iraqis — logistical, intelligence and surveillance help.

The restrictions, a political inevitability, are expected to make it harder for the U.S. to help the Iraqis.

Under the new rules, the U.S. forces will need not only Iraqi permission but Iraqi escorts for any movement. This includes undertaking the reconstruction projects the U.S. military had begun in many places.

All of that requires detailed coordination that hasn’t exactly been an Iraqi military trait, and relies heavily on the relationships built up between commanders at every level.

“If you’ve got a combative relationship with your counterparts you’re not going to get information and you’re probably not going to give information,” said Volesky, whose own relationships with his Iraqi counterparts involve varying degrees of trust — strongest with the Iraqi Army and perhaps the lowest with local police.

An ongoing investigation is still trying to determine how two men who were either Iraqi police or dressed as policemen opened fire in Mosul and killed a U.S. soldier and his interpreter in February.

The changing relationship leaves the U.S. military in the unfamiliar role of no longer being in the driver’s seat. In the north of Iraq, particularly — with the Kurdish-Arab tensions that is one of the biggest fault lines threatening Iraq’s stability — withdrawal or no withdrawal, there is still a lot at stake.

“We’re going to have to learn how to maintain influence without those boots on the ground that would normally make a difference,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq.

Apart from diplomatic leverage, there is a blunter instrument — in the north, the $900 million the U.S. has spent on reconstruction projects.

“There has been a lot investment in the reconstruction to rebuild the essential services infrastructures and if there’s an Al Qaeda safe haven in a neighborhood and the Iraqi security forces are unwilling to go into that neighborhood, we’re going to say ‘listen, we’re not going to bring you essential services,’” Caslen said.

A lesson for anyone thinking that the June 30 withdrawal means that the U.S. isn’t still deeply involved in Iraq.  

Read more about Iraq:

US withdraws from Iraq cities

In Iraq, festivities and mixed feelings

Iraq fails the democracy taste test