Even as Iraqis celebrate the withdrawal of US forces from urban areas, four US soldiers have died from combat-related injuries, according to the US army.
As mapped out by the US-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated at the end of 2008, US combat forces are to withdraw to bases outside all Iraqi cities, towns and villages by June 30, 2009.
The day has been declared a national holiday, with singers and poets having led festivities in Baghdad beginning the previous night.
Iraqi troops are taking over all security duties, but can call on US forces to intervene if needed.
But a recent spate of deadly attacks has cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi security forces alone to provide adequate safety.
A surge of violence has killed more than 100 people in June alone. A truck bomb in the northern city of Kirkuk on June 20 killed 72 people and wounded 200. Just days later, a bomb killed at least 62 and injured 150 in a market in Baghdad’s Sadr City.
Danger of a 2005 repeat
Some analysts question whether the Iraqi army is ready to tackle these challenges. Among them is Michel Goya, director of the newly created Institute for Strategic Research at France’s military college (IRSEM) and author of “Iraq, the Armies of Chaos”.
According to Goya, there’s a danger of a repeat of the events from 2005 to 2007.
In 2005, US forces began to pull out after the election of a transitional government in January. But a huge wave of bloody violence swept across the country starting in May that year.
That violence was finally contained only by the US troop surge two years later.
“The challenge is to raise a genuine national sentiment in the (Iraqi) army,” Goya said in an interview with FRANCE 24. He raised the issue of integrating US-allied Sunni militias into what is currently a Shia-dominated Iraqi military – a pressing political issue.
Arab-Kurd issues in Kirkuk would also need to be resolved, according to Goya.
But both Iraqi and US officials insist that Iraqi forces are up for the task this time.
General Ray Odierno, in charge of US-led forces in Iraq, said that there has been “constant improvement” and the recent attacks were by “extremist elements” trying to use the pullout date to gain attention.
‘Stable and steady’
A more optimistic scenario suggests that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s tighter grip over the country will help him keep control over the national army.
PM Al-Maliki warned earlier in June that insurgent groups were likely to step up attacks in the run-up to the June 30 deadline, but later insisted that Iraq's 750,000 soldiers and police were prepared.
"We assure you of Iraqi forces' readiness for the mission, despite some security violations, and we assure you that we are now more stable and steady," Maliki said after the Sadr City attack.
All army and police leave has been cancelled “until further notice”, according to Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which said that the high threat of attacks meant their forces needed to be “100 percent on the ground”.
Under SOFA, all US military personnel – currently numbering 131,000 according to Odierno – are to completely withdraw from Iraq by December 31, 2011.
But under the provisions of the pact, Iraqis can ask US troops to leave even earlier. A July 2009 referendum on the subject has now been postponed to January 2010, to be held at the same time as national elections.