To Many Iraqis, U.S. Troops Have Not Faded Away

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Nearly two weeks after U.S. combat troops officially pulled out of Iraq's cities, the government in Baghdad is hailing the withdrawal as a sign that it is holding the U.S. to an agreement stipulating that all American troops leave Iraq by 2012.

Despite continuing violence, the Iraqi government says that the arrangement is going smoothly. Many Iraqis, however, aren't so sure. They can't understand why American soldiers are still on their streets.

Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, has seen more than its share of trouble during the six-year-long American occupation of Iraq. After the city was virtually taken over by al-Qaida, Sunni Arabs reclaimed it and, with American backing, turned against the insurgents. The city is relatively safe now, and crucial reconstruction has begun.

But that doesn't mean there is affection for the U.S. Army.

Why Aren't The Americans Gone?

A resident of Ramadi who gives his name only as Omar, says that after June 30, the Americans should now be gone. But there are more U.S. soldiers in the streets than before, he says, adding that he's not sure they are ever leaving. Omar does admit that security is better, which is allowing the rebuilding Ramadi to begin.

But electricity and clean water are still scarce, and people still direct their anger about most everything toward the Americans, says Gen. Tariq al-Asal, the head of Iraqi police in Anbar province.

Average Iraqis still have questions about why, post-June 30, all Americans aren't gone, Asal says.

"They [do] not understand the agreement between the Iraqi government and the American side. We want to explain this issue in the media," he says.

American soldiers are still in Anbar and other parts of the country, says Asal, because the Status of Forces Agreement with the government of Iraq allows thousands of U.S. advisers and trainers to continue working in the cities.

But Asal also admits that the Americans still haven't settled on how they will move around the city. Soon, he says, they may be identified with special signs explaining that their presence is authorized by the government of Iraq.

Trying To Mitigate Confusion

Some confusion is understandable, says Army Lt. General Frank Helmick, who oversees the American and NATO troops still operating in Iraq's cities.

"It's a major challenge to get the information out to the Iraqi people, and it's a challenge that the government of Iraq has. They're doing an adequate job at that as well. ... Our uniforms look the same whether you're an infantryman or a public affairs officer who's conducting a training or advising mission inside one of the security ministries," he says.

Both the U.S. and Iraqi governments are eager to have Iraqi troops take over responsibility for security, though more than 130,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq and significant reductions are not expected until after the Iraqi general election in January.

Helmick says U.S. and other foreign troops have been moving at night when possible and sometimes staying put if they feel their presence will be too obtrusive.

But patrols of Americans are still visible throughout the country, some of them accompanied by Iraqi troops and others on their own. And Iraqis are lodging complaints every time they see U.S. soldiers.

Withdrawal Can't Be Immediate

It's a difficult job for the government to convince them that this is for the good of the country, says Ali al Dabagh, spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister.

"We can't make everybody ... equal in understanding. Definitely there are people they are sensitive to seeing the Americans. But in the end, it is a decision being taken to protect the security of the Iraqis, and it is for the benefit of the people," he says.

And there are plenty of Iraqis who, whether they'll admit it, want to see the Americans stick around. Among them is Abdul Jabbar Abu Risha, who leads the Sons of Iraq — Sunni fighters who turned against the insurgency and worked with the Americans in Anbar province.

"The withdrawal cannot be an immediate one. American forces have equipment and many soldiers in Iraq. We know that they have a main base with branches here and there gradually the different branches will pull back, and then even the base will go," he says.

Abu Risha is confident that the American soldiers want to go home to their families and leave Iraq. But it will take time, he says.

"They're not like a soccer team," says Abu Risha. "They can't just come over here to play and then leave the minute the game is over."



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