ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. For the first time in six years, the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities are almost completely free of American combat troops. Iraq's government declared a national holiday to celebrate what it called the return of Iraqi sovereignty, as American troops redeployed out of Iraqi cities. Violence marred the occasion when a car bomb exploded in a marketplace in the north of Iraq. But as NPR's Quil Lawrence reports, both Americans and Iraqis emphasize that today is a major milestone.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Baghdad citizens took their cue from the police, who, for one day, replaced their megaphones and sirens with music.
Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Iraqis left the streets empty - some, perhaps, out of anxiety, but many more because of the holiday, the stifling heat, and the fact that they'd been out partying all night.
Here at Firdos Square in the center of Baghdad, where famously, a statue of Saddam Hussein came down over six years ago, there are Iraqi policemen surrounding the square. They've got balloons and streamers and plastic flowers on their cars.
Mr. WALLA ABUNOUR(ph): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Sitting by the fountains in the square, Walla Abunour says he's been waiting years for this day to come. God willing, he adds, the invaders will soon leave Iraq for good. He says he doesn't think that Iraq will fall back into sectarian fighting.
MR. ABUNOUR: (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: Iraqis have risen above that now, says Abunour. He goes on to claim that the worst violence was always instigated from outside the country, a common excuse here in Iraq. But today, there was at least partial support for the idea by the U.S. commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. After congratulating the government on its day of sovereignty at a news conference, he went on to give a stern warning to the eastern neighbor.
General RAY ODIERNO (U.S. Commander, Iraq): Iran is still supporting, funding, training surrogates who operate inside of Iraq. I think many of the attacks in Baghdad are from individuals that have been, in fact, funded or trained by the Iranians.
LAWRENCE: The day was marred by several attacks, including a car bomb in the northern city of Kirkuk. Undeterred, Iraqi leaders marked the holiday with televised speeches to the nation.
(Soundbite of TV broadcast)
President JALAL TALABANI (Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: President Jalal Talabani thanked coalition troops for their sacrifice and praised the Iraqi security forces. Talabani is from the country's Kurdish minority, which is the only sector of the population that openly supports a continuing American presence. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is in a more complicated position. Even as he continues to lean on the U.S., he's pushing a nationalist agenda that may well win him a second term in Iraq's elections next year.
Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Foreign language spoken)
LAWRENCE: It was the Iraqi government that brought peace to the country, Maliki said. And, he said, anyone who doubts Iraq's readiness is aiding terrorists. He mentioned the United States mostly in the context of how soon they would depart Iraq, thanks to Baghdad's tough bargaining with the Americans.
Today's milestone is mostly symbolic. No U.S. troops actually left the country, and combat operations will continue with an emphasis on the Iraqi role. American officials still voice serious concerns that internal divisions may not subside before the complete American withdrawal in 2011.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military today announced the combat deaths of four more American soldiers.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Baghdad.
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