U.S. Troops Withdraw From Iraqi Cities

Iraqi forces are in full formal control of Baghdad and other cities. American troops have handed over security in urban areas to Iraqi troops in a defining step toward ending the U.S. combat role in the country.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In Iraq last night, a clock on Iraqi TV counted down the minutes until midnight, the deadline for all American combat troops to leave towns and cities there. With the formal pullout well underway, the Iraqi police and army are out in strength on the street. The moment was such a milestone in restoring sovereignty to Iraq, the government has declared today a national holiday. We turn now to NPR's Quil Lawrence in Baghdad, who's been out looking around. And Quil, was there a big celebration last night? I gather there were fireworks in some places?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Yes, there were people out in the streets celebrating. There were police cars on every corner, decked out with colored streamers and balloons and little plastic flowers, and they were playing music. It really was festive. And now it looks sort of like a Sunday morning - or a Friday morning, I guess, out here in Iraq - a holiday. The streets are mostly empty. Of course, the temperatures are already up to about 110 or 120 degrees, so not many people out. But the ones who are out are generally seeming optimistic. I should add when I came in to my office this morning, there was a sign that had been put there late last night by our Iraqi staff, saying all Americans must now check with Iraqis before entering this office.

MONTAGNE: That's our staff making a joke. But how will the streets of Iraq cities be different after this transition?

LAWRENCE: Well, it already looks different. There are a lot less Americans that I've ever seen here in the six years since the operations began. For about five days, we're expecting to see almost no American presence. They want to stand down in a very noticeable, meaningful way. And then afterwards, we are expecting to see Iraqi and American patrols partnered, but perhaps even with signs on the Humvees, or the American vehicles, saying this is an authorized patrol. They want to make sure that Iraqis see that they are indeed stepping back because so many people here in the Middle East suspect that the Americans don't have an intention of leaving.

MONTAGNE: And, of course, the ongoing and still-not-quite-answered question: Are Iraq's forces up to the task of protecting its people? What's your sense?

LAWRENCE: Well, American officials say they are. Iraqi officials and Iraqi policemen on the street say they think they are. They have been doing more raids on their own, more operations where Iraqis are in the lead. But this is really what we're going have to see over the next coming months. All of these victories in the past year or two have been claimed by Iraqi forces. Were those Iraqi forces doing it, or were the Americans actually in the lead and just giving Iraqis the credit? We're going to see there's a temptation for the U.S. to perhaps step in. And they're going have to, in the words of some American commanders here, resist that to allow the Iraqis to really stand on their own feet.

MONTAGNE: And U.S. troops, how do they feel about this change?

LAWRENCE: Well, again, it's kind of a mixed feeling. This is their whole mission, they say, is to work themselves out of a job so they can go home. But they want to know that they have left behind a job well done. And there's also a bit of pride, here. If the American troops step back and the Iraqis are fine without them or even better off, well, what does that say about the job the Americans were doing? So, it's a - you get Americans saying the party line that they think that the Iraqi troops are ready, that they've trained them up. But there's also a little bit of reluctance.

MONTAGNE: And maybe trepidation hoping, you know, that things won't go wrong.

LAWRENCE: Well, yes, after six years, so many lives lost and so much American treasure, the U.S. troops here really want to be able to leave knowing that they've accomplished something lasting. It's going to be terribly hard for them if this whole experiment does not leave something better off here in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Quil, thanks very much.

LAWRENCE: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Quil Lawrence is NPR's Baghdad bureau chief.

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