Security Tightens In Baghdad As Deadline Looms

Security tightened in Baghdad on Sunday as the deadline for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraq's cities draws near. This major transition is supposed to happen by Tuesday, but with a series of deadly insurgent attacks around the country, some are wondering if Iraqi forces are up to the challenge.

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GUY RAZ, host:

In Baghdad, Iraqi police and soldiers set up checkpoints and roadblocks across the city today. They're gearing up for a major shift in their mission this week. On Tuesday, American troops are scheduled to complete their withdrawal from Iraq's urban centers. Complicating the transition: a rash of insurgent attacks across the country that have killed hundreds.

NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence joins us. And Quil, are Iraqis apprehensive about this U.S. withdrawal? Or is there a sense of relief that, you know, they won't be seeing as many U.S. troops in their cities any longer?

QUIL LAWRENCE: I've heard both. I've heard people say they're scared because they think the Iraqi forces just aren't ready or the Iraqi forces are still too sectarian, loyal to the parties instead of loyal to the central government, and I have heard sort of a brave face from people who say yes, everything is going to be fine, but you get the idea that they're quite scared.

But I will have to say the majority of the people I've talked to actually say that they want the U.S. out, that that's what they've always wanted, and they think in many ways it was the American occupation, they say, which is the irritant that has caused a lot of the violence.

RAZ: Quil, you mentioned that string of insurgent bombings. On CNN this morning, General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. ground commander in Iraq, said those attacks don't necessarily signal a return to that period when Iraq seemed to be at the mercy of extremists.

General RAY ODIERNO (Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq): They are trying to use this timeframe in the state to first gain attention for themselves and also to divert attention from the success of the Iraqi security forces.

RAZ: Quil, that sounds pretty familiar, talk of progress. But based on what you've seen, are the Iraqi forces up to the task?

LAWRENCE: Well, American officials on the record will say so. They're putting on a very confident face. And I would say I'm definitely seeing many fewer American faces than I ever have in the past six years in Iraq. You just don't see the checkpoints. You don't see American patrols stopping at traffic circles, making people angry as they cause huge traffic jams, but this is really going to be the test when the Americans pull back, and the Iraqis are in the lead, we're going to find out, I suppose, who really won these big battles that the central government has taken the credit for, the battles in Basra and Sadr City against militias in the past year.

I've heard U.S. commanders say confidentially that they think the Iraqi leadership is a little overconfident in thinking that they won those battles by themselves, that there was really a lot of American help. Now we're going to see.

RAZ: Quil, how do you expect the streets of Baghdad to be different after this transition is complete?

LAWRENCE: Well, we're already seeing, as I said, less Americans than I ever remember seeing here since the invasion, but the Americans are planning a very abrupt change so that they won't be seen for several days, as many as five days. And then when they come back on the streets, they want to show that the Iraqis are in the lead, and they may even put signs on the side of their trucks saying that this patrol is in cooperation with Iraqi forces, that sort of thing.

RAZ: And you say when they come back, of course, not all American troops are leaving the cities. Who's staying behind?

LAWRENCE: Well, we're not terribly clear on that. We aren't getting exact numbers from American authorities here. It's important to stress that we're just changing the footprint here. They're not changing the actual numbers in country, but it seems like there's still some discussion going on. In cities like Mosul and Kirkuk and certainly Baghdad, there are American bases that will remain just as they are, and it seems, to me anyway, that as soon as I stepped off that base, I was in the city. It's an agreement between the Americans and the Iraqis to consider those bases no longer in the city.

But there will be advisers left behind, and we can tell also that there are some spots they're still discussing, spots that might be politically important to the government to show the Americans have left, but the Americans strategically just don't quite want to give up.

RAZ: That's NPR's Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence. Quil, thanks a lot.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Guy.

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