Iraqis waved flags and honked horns as U.S. troops officially withdrew from cities and towns across the country Tuesday in what Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dubbed a "National Sovereignty Day" public holiday, more than six years after American forces invaded to oust Saddam Hussein from power.
"This day, which we consider a national celebration, is an achievement made by all Iraqis," the prime minister said in a televised address. Maliki said the continued presence of foreign troops in the country was Hussein's "most serious legacy" and warned that "those who think that Iraqis are not able to protect their country and that the withdrawal of foreign forces will create a security vacuum are committing a big mistake."
Shortly before the withdrawal was complete, four U.S. soldiers were killed in combat, the latest casualties in a war than has claimed more than 4,300 American troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis. That was followed by the third bomb blast in recent days — the latest a car bomb that killed at least 30 people and wounded nearly 45 in the northern city of Kirkuk.
The urban pullout completed on Monday, part of a U.S.-Iraqi security pact, marks the first major step toward a complete withdrawal of all U.S. forces from the country by the end of 2011. The United States had closed or returned to local control 120 bases and facilities and will turn over or close an additional 30 sites by Wednesday, Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said.
On the streets of Baghdad, a military parade was held in the heavily fortified Green Zone diplomatic district featuring thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police in U.S.-donated Humvees, armored cars and tanks.
President Jalal Talabani thanked the United States, saying the day of celebration would not have been possible without the U.S. invasion in 2003 that toppled Hussein.
"While we celebrate this day, we express our thanks and gratitude to our friends in the coalition forces who faced risks and responsibilities and sustained casualties and damage," Talabani said. He also warned that "security will not be achieved completely without the proper political environment and without a real national unity and reconciliation."
However, insurgents have increased attacks in the weeks leading up to the U.S. drawdown, including the three bomb blasts that killed nearly 200 people.
Some American troops will remain in urban areas to train and advise Iraqi forces, and combat troops will return to cities only if asked. The U.S. military will continue combat operations in Iraq's rural areas and near the border, but only with the Iraqi government's permission.
U.S. officials have not said how many troops will remain in advisory roles, but the vast majority of the more than 130,000 U.S. forces remaining in the country will be in large bases scattered outside cities.
From NPR staff and wire reports