By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
June 30, 2009 - As the United States completed its withdrawal of combat forces from Iraqi cities in accordance with today's deadline, Baghdad commemorated the milestone with a national holiday. The departing American brigades and battalions leave behind a significantly smaller contingent of U.S. trainers and advisors in the cities, where Iraqi forces now have primary authority, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said. The move comes as part of the status of forces agreement between the United States and Iraq.
"A small number of U.S. forces will remain in cities to train, advise, coordinate with Iraqi security forces, as well as enable them to move forward," Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno told reporters at the Pentagon today. The general declined to provide the number of troops to remain, saying that the figure will fluctuate on a daily basis.
Meanwhile, news reports from Baghdad describe Iraqis marking the day with a military parade attended by Iraqi reporters and dignitaries in the international area known as the "Green Zone" at the official monument to an unknown soldier.
Similar celebrations took place around the country in recent days as the American drawdown from cities neared completion. A U.S. military video shot yesterday in Baqubah, a city north of the Iraqi capital in Diyala province, shows a parade in which Iraqi police march through a city scene marked by a distinct absence of American boots on the ground.
Since October, the United States has closed or returned to Iraqi authority 150 bases and facilities, including 30 this month. Odierno noted that U.S. troops have been out of most Iraqi cities for the last eight months, with drawdowns over the last few weeks focusing mainly on Mosul and Baghdad.
But today's transfer of responsibility to Iraqi security forces represents a "significant milestone," Odierno said.
"It is a day when Iraqis celebrate as they continue to move towards exercising their full sovereignty," he said. "The Iraqi people should be very proud of the dedication, progress and sacrifice of the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq. Their accomplishments in preparing for this day are commendable."
As Iraqis secure the cities, Odierno said, U.S. forces are establishing a layer of defense outside the urban areas, conducting full-spectrum and stability operations alongside Iraqis to eliminate safe havens, crack down on insurgents and stem the flow of foreign fighters. U.S. forces also will support civil efforts led by the U.S. Embassy, the Iraqi government, and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, he said.
"Our combat forces, partnering with the Iraqi security forces, will secure the belts and borders in an attempt to eliminate safe havens and sanctuaries and to limit freedom of movement of insurgents and prevent the facilitation of foreign fighters through the borders," he said.
The United States is committed to full, transparent and continued implementation of the security agreement in a spirit of partnership with the sovereign nation of Iraq, Odierno said. President Barack Obama has announced plans to commence a phased drawdown of U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010.
As Iraqis celebrate a nationwide holiday highlighting their added responsibility, Americans also can be proud of the efforts by U.S. forces to stabilize Iraq, which last month had the lowest levels of violence since the war began six years ago, the general noted.
"The American people can also be very proud, as well, of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, as well as our civilians, who have worked so hard over the past years -- and tirelessly -- and sacrificed so much in helping the people of Iraq progress towards a peaceful and democratic society," Odierno said.