As Iraqi forces took control of towns and cities across the country on June 30, a car bomb in the northern city of Kirkuk exploded, killing at least 33 people and injuring more than 100, serving as a grim reminder of the security challenges that Iraqis face following US troop pullout. Kirkuk was also the scene of two suicide bombings last month in which 14 people were killed. It is the center of northern Iraq's oil industry and home to a volatile mix of Kurds, Arabs, Christians and members of the Turkmen community.
Although vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi asked Iraqis to stay away from crowded places during the US pullback, his appeal has largely been ignored: more than 250 people were killed in bombings over the past 10 days. Thousands of Iraqis turned up in unprecedented numbers to mark this occasion in a public holiday called National Sovereignty Day.
"I never thought that this day would come," said Ahmed Aliyan, a reporter for one of the local television networks.
The attacks in Kirkuk are not a coincidence; this northern Iraqi city sits atop lucrative oil reserves where pipelines connect Kirkuk's oilfields to ports on Turkey's Mediterranean coast. Kirkuk has long been the prize sought after in an Arab-Kurdish competition for power and wealth, and for the many who wish to prevent stability in Iraq and wreak havoc, Kirkuk is the ideal launching pad. It was just such attacks which provoked Shi'a militias to take brutal revenge against Sunnis in 2006 and 2007, bringing the country to the brink of civil war and disintegration.
Will the "enemies of Iraq" (as referred to by Nouri el-Maliki) succeed?
This depends on whether Iraqi forces can prevent an upsurge of violence in the period leading up to the elections in January, 2010. Many skeptics worry that the US withdrawal will trigger another spiral of sectarian violence similar to the one the country witnessed three years ago because Iraqi forces still lack the training and capabilities to prevent it.
Meanwhile, military experts anticipate more violence in the days ahead. President Obama, who on the occasion of the handover said "Iraq's future is in the hands of its own people," also warned that Iraqis face "difficult days ahead."
Over the past several weeks, I have noticed a surge in confidence-building advertisement airing on the state television network, Al Iraqiya, and the Saudi-sponsored Al Arabiya TV targeting Iraqis to trust their own security forces in protecting them. One such promo ran a "Countdown to Sovereignty" clock but also broadcast promotional spots glorifying Iraqi history, culture and people. It ran images of ordinary Iraqi citizens walking shoulder to shoulder with members of the armed forces and police on the "path of freedom" as they dubbed it.
The upcoming days will be a real test for the Iraqi forces. Now that the United States can take credit for restoring democracy to Iraq, is it sufficiently rooted to survive the US withdrawal?
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