June 26, 2009
Iraqis have second thoughts over June 30 date for US troops to leave
Alice Fordham in Baquba Times on line
For six years Iraqis in this restless provincial capital have been waiting for US forces to withdraw, in the hope that the area will return to being Iraq’s sleepy rural backwater.
However, with only days to go before the last American soldiers are due to pull out of Baquba and other Iraqi cities, the residentshaving doubts.
There are fears that a premature departure will lead to a return of sectarian violence or allow al-Qaeda to re-establish itself. Many would like the Americans to remain until security is restored permanently.
“After you guys pull out from the city I don’t know what our enemies are going to do,Thaban Hassan said. The head of an Iraqi Army battalion in Baquba, he told the American soldiers gathered in his office that “safety is not 100 per cent . . . why are the Americans leaving?”
Colonel Burt Thompson, the commander of US forces in the area, whose troops still patrol Baquba, admitted that Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, had taken a gamble by insisting that his forces take control according to an agreed timetable.
In the past few days a bomb hit a mayor’s convoy, another hit an Iraqi army patrol and there was a revenge killing of an al-Qaeda militant.
In line with the status of forces agreement between the US and Iraqi governments, which came into effect at the beginning of this year, all US troops will cease patrolling Iraqi cities from June 30.
Despite the spike in violence Mr al-Maliki has insisted that the withdrawal will go ahead as planned.
Colonel Thompson called this insistence political and said that he would prefer to keep US soldiers in Diyala province, which remains a hub for insurgents coming into the country, until after elections next January.
That view is shared by residents. Dhea Taha, 32, who lives with her children near Baquba, said: “The security situation is not stable in the first place ... there is an increase in terrorist activity.”
Mohammad al-Obeidi, the chairman of the Security Council of Qais and Khalis, areas of Baquba which still have sectarian tensions, said that Mr al-Maliki’s reassurances did not ease concerns.
“Iraq is like a baby right now," he said. "It needs people to look after it.”
The religiously and ethnically diverse province was split by sectarian conflict during the turmoil after the invasion and never fully recovered. Remnants of Sunni groups, including al-Qaeda in Iraq and Shia militia, are still active.
A Sunni in Khalis said that she fled after her house was hit by gunfire last year but when she tried to return two months ago her family’s homes and businesses were still occupied by a Shia militia.
First Lieutenant Hatem, head of an Iraqi Emergency Response Team in Baquba, said that his troops have been hit by roadside bombs and targeted by kidnappers. One soldier was seized last week and a ransom demanded.
“After you guys pull out,” he said to his American allies, “the situation is going to be bad.”
The border with Iran is patrolled by the Iraqi Army, but he had little faith in them, saying, “all insurgents escape from the country through the border ... and of course weapons are smuggled across the borders.”
“I certainly see that insurgent forces will perceive June 30 as a gap in our security plan,” said Colonel Shaun Reed, a battalion commander. “I think we will see a spike in violence based on the idea that the Iraqi security forces aren’t ready.”