The White House gave cautious praise Tuesday to the withdrawal of most U.S. forces out of Iraqi cities and towns, saying they will continue to work with the government and security forces there to maintain a fragile peace and advance toward political stability.
President Obama called the movement of troops to bases outside major urban areas “an important step forward,” but also warned there will continue to be violence in Iraq, citing a car bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk earlier in the day that killed at least 33 people and wounded another 90.
The bombing was the latest in a spate of recent attacks by terrorists in Iraq, and it marred what was a day of celebration for many Iraqis. The Iraqi government declared a national holiday.
Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said he expects a spike in violence to follow the pullout from cities but that it would be an effort by al Qaeda in Iraq and other groups to “increase the level of violence to try to pretend that they forced us out of the cities.”
The troops are moving to bases outside Iraqi cities as part of an agreement between the U.S. and Iraq reached by President Bush, who gave the order to invade the country in 2003, about 18 months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The move out of the cities is a reversal of the counterinsurgency strategy launched in 2007 that emphasized a constant U.S. presence among Iraqis, a strategy that followed more than three years of unsuccessfully trying to reduce violence from bases located away from city centers.
U.S. troop levels hit a peak of more than 160,000 in 2008, are now at just over 130,000, and are likely headed down to 120,000 by December, said Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq. When U.S. combat missions cease in August 2010, he said, the plan is to have a “residual force” of 50,000 troops, with the goal of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
White House and military officials said the rash of recent attacks - which included the death of four U.S. soldiers just outside Baghdad on Monday night, bringing the total number of U.S. military deaths since 2003 to 4,321 - does not erase the gains they’ve made and have not yet threatened the stability achieved in Iraq.
“There is not widespread violence here in Iraq,” Gen. Odierno said during a press conference. “The problem with June is, over the last 10 days we’ve had a couple high-profile attacks, so … that changes it a little bit. But if you compare it back to the dark days of 2006 and ‘07, there’s no comparison.”
He said that the attack in Kirkuk, which followed a June 20 bombing in the same area that killed 82 people, bore the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq, an offshoot of the terrorist group that carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Denis McDonough, a top national security adviser to Mr. Obama, said, “As disconcerting as these attacks are, the trend lines are all quite good over the course of the last several years.
“We see the Iraqis stepping up to take charge,” he said.
Mr. Obama said he was confident that insurgent, militia and terrorist groups would fail, and added that the transition of U.S. troops was “proof that those who have tried to pull Iraq into the abyss of disunion and civil war are on the wrong side of history.”
Gen. Odierno said a “small number of U.S. forces will remain in cities to train, advise, coordinate with Iraqi security forces,” but he grew frustrated when reporters tried unsuccessfully to pry a specific number out of him. He later apologized.
But one top Iraq analyst said the real danger is that competing Iraqi political parties will put short-term interests above the country’s long-term future and plunge Iraq back into sectarian strife and even civil war, and that the Obama administration will not give enough priority to Iraq as it seeks to deal with a host of other challenges both abroad and at home.
“One of the big problems we have has been this fervent desire on the part of the American people and their political leaders to try to just ignore Iraq as much as we can,” said Kenneth Pollack, acting director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
“We may not like the war in Iraq, but we can’t afford to walk away from it. We need to remember that in 2006 the Middle East seemed like it was absolutely about to implode, and the driver for all of that was the civil war in Iraq, and the reason why the Middle East now seems bad, but not catastrophic, is that Iraq improved to a certain extent,” he said.
While Mr. Pollack said there is “evidence of growing problems in Iraq,” he also said “there is still plenty of time to catch them before they deteriorate into something truly meaningful.” But he added that the U.S. needs to “start paying a little bit more attention” to Iraq.