Iraqis voiced happiness on Saturday over President Barack Obama’s declaration that US forces will leave by year-end, but some spoke of concern the pullout could further destabilise their country.
The decision to withdraw all remaining soldiers in the country after nearly nine years of war, and the deaths of more than 4,400 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis, came after Baghdad and Washington failed to agree to legal immunity for a training mission past 2011.
“The day of their departure represents a historic moment and I will be the happiest person with the exit of the occupier from our country,” said Abdulrahman Munshid al-Assi, a leader of the al-Obeid tribe in the northern city of Kirkuk.
Despite largely focusing on training and equipping their Iraqi counterparts, the US military is still widely seen as an occupying force, and many in the country voiced happiness over its imminent departure.
Aslan Abdulrahman Ahmed, a Turkmen who owns a coffee shop in the city, added that Obama’s announcement “represents a victory for the Iraqi resistance and all those freed who suffered from American policy in Iraq”.
“But the government and politicians must be united and stand in the face of any regional intervention, and they must focus on the development of the security forces,” he added.
For Abu al-Hamza, a retired colonel of the pre-2003 Iraqi army who lives in Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, the withdrawal gives a chance for “Iraqi forces to depend on themselves and develop their abilities in the future”.
“The US presence brought problems for us — of course, their withdrawal will lead to an improvement in Iraqis’ lives.”
Around 39,500 US troops remain in Iraq on 18 bases, down from a peak of nearly 170,000 soldiers on 505 bases, and all must withdraw by the end of the year under the terms of a 2008 security pact.
US and Iraqi officials assess that while domestic forces are able to handle internal security, they cannot yet defend the country’s borders, its air space or its territorial waters.
And while violence is markedly down from its peak in 2006 and 2007 when a brutal insurgency and sectarian war raged, attacks remain common. A total of 185 people died in violence last month, according to official figures.
Politics also remain deadlocked — after an inconclusive March 2010 general election, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has yet to appoint a permanent minister of defence or interior.
“There is no law to keep life organised — the situation is not suitable at all for this withdrawal,” said Abdul Sattar Jabbar, who works at a library in the centre of Baghdad.
“Iraqi forces are not qualified and not able to control the situation in the country.”
A police major in the capital who declined to be identified warned that “terrorist groups and others will exploit the weakness of the security forces to carry out attacks that will lead to instability.
“This withdrawal is coming at a bad time — we need at least 10 years to be able to depend on ourselves,” he said.
Meanwhile, Mohammed Abdullah Hammo, a former officer in the Iraqi army who now lives in the main northern city of Mosul said: “The withdrawal is a positive step, but is Iraq able to take over the security mission and protect its soil from Al-Qaeda attacks and foreign aggression?
“I think the withdrawal decision was taken quickly without taking into consideration external threats. We will be an easy target for neighbouring countries and the sectarian war might return.”