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Iraq's 'National Sovereignty Day'

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by Faiz Shakir, Amanda Terkel, Matt Corley, Benjamin Armbruster, Ali Frick, Ryan Powers, and Ian Millhiser

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Iraqis took to the streets yesterday to celebrate the pullback of U.S. forces from the country's cities and towns, festooning cars with flowers and playing music and dancing in Baghdad parks. As part of the counterinsurgency strategy implemented by Gen. David Petraeus in 2007, U.S. troops had established small bases in neighborhoods in Iraq's cities to better protect the population and combat insurgents. Now, as stipulated in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement signed last November, American troops have largely completed a gradual withdrawal to bases outside the main city centers. Iraqi forces now have the main responsibility for Iraq's internal safety, with U.S. troops acting in an advisory partnership role. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "seized on the occasion to position himself as a proud leader of a country independent at last, looking ahead to the next milestone of parliamentary elections in January." Declaring the day to be "National Sovereignty Day," Maliki called the drawdown a "great victory" for the Iraqi people, even comparing it to the Iraqi rebellion against British forces in 1920. "He made no mention of American troops in a nationally televised speech, even though nearly 130,000 remain in the country."

THE END OF OCCUPATION: Though June 30 was by no means the end of the Iraq war, it represents a major milestone in U.S. efforts to wind down its six-years old military intervention in the country and put Iraqi security in the hands of Iraqis. The statements of Maliki and other Iraqi leaders, as well as the jubilation over the transfer of security authority, gave another clear indication that Iraqis continue to have a generally unfavorable view of the presence of foreign troops in their land. Much of the Iraqi debate over the U.S. presence still takes place within the discourse of resistance to occupation, with even close U.S. partners such as Maliki "describing the withdrawal as the result of Iraq's successful bid to 'repulse' the invaders." Whatever the true disposition of Iraq's leaders toward a continuing U.S.-Iraq relationship, nationalist posturing against the U.S. presence continues to be a political winner, a reality that will impact any future relationship between the U.S. and Iraq.

STAB IN THE BACK?: A number of conservatives have criticized the U.S. pullback, seeming to forget that the date was stipulated in an agreement hammered out by the Bush administration (and hailed at the time by the war's supporters as a victory for Bush's Iraq policy). Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute called the pullback a "projection of weakness," and warned that the day "will likely mark another milestone: the end of the surge and the relative peace it brought to Iraq." Vice President Cheney -- who assured Americans in May 2005 that the insurgency was in its "last throes" -- used the occasion as another opportunity to cast the Obama administration as irresponsible, warning that he "would not want to see the US waste all the tremendous sacrifice that has gotten us to this point." Responding to Cheney's attacks, former White House counterterrorism chief Richard Clarke said on MSNBC's Countdown this week, "He's trying to predict disasters -- another al Qaeda attack, more violence in Iraq; and say, in advance of these things happening, if they happen, it will be because of something Obama did. Even though in this case, it's something that Bush did."

CONTINUING SECURITY CHALLENGES: In remarks yesterday afternoon, President Obama said that the Iraqi people were "rightly treating this day as a cause for celebration," but noted that "there will be difficult days ahead." There is no question that the security situation in Iraq has been transformed over the last two years. But while Iraq is no longer in the throes of civil war, insurgent elements still retain the ability to carry out spectacular mass-casualty terrorist attacks, as was recently shown in the suicide truck bomb attack near Kirkuk that killed more than 60 people, and another bombing yesterday that killed more than 30 people. Though the U.S. will continue to operate in partnership with Iraqi security forces, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, has repeatedly said he is confident the Iraqis are ready to take over security. The transfer of responsibility for security is a vital step in strengthening the legitimacy of the Iraqi government. A stable and unified Iraq is in the U.S.'s national security interests and honoring the terms of our agreements, including yesterday's mandated withdrawal from Iraq's cities, is essential to that goal.