U.S. poised to let Iraqis take lead

BAGHDAD | Ten days before Tuesday’s deadline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities, the war came full circle with the transfer to Iraqi control of two small but heavily symbolic bases in northeast Baghdad.

Joint Security Forces Apache in Adhamiyah and Joint Security Forces Sadr City were signed over — the first without fanfare, the second in more ceremonial fashion.

On April 10, 2003, Adhamiyah Palace was the focal point for one of the last big gunbattles during the U.S. capture of Baghdad as Marines battled for more than seven hours to hold off Iraqi soldiers and jihadi gunmen.

Five years later, the base near Sadr City played a key role in the surge of U.S. troops that crippled the Shi’ite gunmen of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and stopped a rain of rocket fire on the international zone housing the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government.

Iraqi Gen. Abud Kambar al-Malliki warned militias during the transfer ceremony of the Sadr base that his forces “are ready to fight you if you attack our citizens.”

“Those who hide in dark holes: We are ready to have the earth shaking above your head,” he said.

Whether Iraqis are really ready to defend their own population centers is among the most crucial questions this country faces as the United States pulls back in accordance with last year’s Status of Forces Agreement en route to a total withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by the end of 2011.

“I do believe they’re ready,” Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said Sunday on CNNs “State of the Union.”

“They’ve been working towards this for a long time,” Gen. Odierno said. “And security remains good. We’ve seen constant improvement in the security force; we’ve seen constant improvement in governance. And I believe this is the time for us to move out of the cities and for them to take ultimate responsibility.”

Many Iraqis and some Americans, however, are apprehensive.

In the run-up to the transition, a half-dozen bombs have rocked northeastern Baghdad, where hostile acts had occurred about once every other day. Scores of people died in the attacks, which appeared designed to shake confidence in the government, as well as to reignite sectarian fighting.

Qais Mustafa Ismail, 36, a taxi driver and former sergeant in the Iraqi army under now-deceased Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, said the U.S. withdrawal “will increase the violence in Iraq.”

The problem is that we [the Iraqi people] are not getting along with each other,” Mr. Ismail said.

Asked if Iraqi security forces were capable of containing the violence, Mr. Ismail said, “No, this army cannot. They carry their cell phones all the time. They call friends and girlfriends or use Bluetooth to exchange songs or video clips. Doing all this, they leave their posts instead of watching over security.”

Several Iraqis voiced fears that Iraq’s neighbors would take advantage of the U.S. pullback.

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