BAGDAD: Iraqis today prepared for a massive party in Baghdad to celebrate
the imminent withdrawal of US troops from cities, towns and villages, as the conflict-torn nation takes sole charge of its security.
Festivities to mark “a day of national sovereignty” will start at 6pm (1500 GMT) in Zawra Park, the biggest in the capital, with singers and poets kicking off proceedings before music groups take to the stage.
The US pullout, under a bilateral security accord signed last year, will be completed on Tuesday, which has been declared a national holiday.
In the wake of several massive bombings that have killed more than 200 people this month, however, security forces are out in force in the capital and motorcycles, favoured by some bombers, have been banned from the streets.
In a measure of the seriousness of the threat, all police and army leave has been ancelled.
“Our expectation is that maybe some criminals will try to continue their attacks,” said Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf, the interior ministry’s operations director and spokesman.
“That is why orders came from the highest level of the prime minister that our forces should be 100 per cent on the ground until further notice.” Iraqi Premier Nuri al-Maliki warned earlier this month that insurgent groups and militias were likely to step up attacks in the run-up to the June 30 deadline in a bid to undermine confidence in Iraq’s own security forces.
But Maliki and senior government officials have since insisted that Iraq’s 750,000 soldiers and police can defend the nation against attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents and forces loyal to ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
He appealed to Iraqis to inform the army and police of any potential attacks, and to ensure that the country did not return to the sectarian violence that blighted it throughout 2006 and 2007.
Only a small number of US forces in training and advisory roles will remain in urban areas, with the bulk of American troops in Iraq, 131,000 according to Pentagon figures, quartered elsewhere.
The June 30 withdrawal from cities, towns and villages is the prelude to a complete American pullout by the end of 2011.
Iraq has also set up a joint operations centre — the Joint Military Operations Coordination Committee, based at Baghdad airport — which must give its approval before a US unit can intervene. The Status of Forces Agreement, which set the June 30 deadline for a US pullback, says US commanders must gain permission from Iraqi authorities to conduct operations, but American troops retain a unilateral right to “legitimate self-defence”.