BAGHDAD — Security forces were on high alert as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki marked the official end of the U.S. combat mission here by telling skeptical Iraqis that a new day had dawned for their country.
In Baghdad, all leave for Iraqi soldiers and police was canceled and new checkpoints were set up across the city, adding another level of frustration to Iraqis struggling to get through 115-degree heat amid power cuts and water shortages – many of them fasting during the holy month of Ramadan.
U.S. forces prepared for a possible wave of rocket and mortar attacks aimed at the American embassy in the protected Green Zone and a former palace that is home to U.S. military headquarters near the international airport ahead of a cerremony Wednesday to mark the end of the U.S. combat mission. Iraqi and U.S. troops have been sweeping through neighborhoods from where rocket attacks have been launched with increasing frequency and numbers over the last several weeks. Most are generally attributed to Shiite militias.
A fleet of military helicopters rumbled over Baghdad neighborhoods carrying U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to his appointments with Iraqi leaders. At least one rocket landed near the Green Zone, though there were no reports of injuries.
The rocket and mortar attacks, which can be launched from miles away and are generally attributed to Shiite militias, have increased in frequency and accuracy over the last several weeks.
“You are regaining the sovereignty of your country,” Maliki told a divided nation in an address on state-run TV. “Our relations with the United States have entered a new stage between two equal, sovereign countries.”
Though the US combat role is officially ending, roughly 50,000 US troops remain and as long as they are in Iraq it's possible they'll be involved in fighting.
The withdrawal of the last US combat brigades before tomorrow’s deadline was a victory both for President Barack Obama, who made it a main campaign pledge, and for Maliki, who is fighting to remain prime minister in a new government. Despite a parliamentary election six months ago, a new government has not yet been formed.
The timing of Obama’s plan was decided long before Iraq's political impasse. Many Iraqis blame the political vacuum for ongoing attacks — some of which are suicide attacks that US officials say are being carried out by remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Unlike June 30 last year, which was declared a day of national celebration as US troops withdrew from the cities, the capital was somber on Tuesday.
“Do we celebrate suicide?” ask Abu Tariq, an army officer in central Baghdad. He says that the U.S. military drawdown while Iraq's borders remain porous and there are "political divisions within the security forces” caused by a system that allows political parties to nominate officers "is suicide for the Iraqi people and a stable Iraqi state.”
“I don’t say they should stay — but the timing is so wrong. At least wait until we have a government,” he says.
In talks with Iraqi leaders on Tuesday, visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said forming a coalition government that could improve service provision to the people and fashion a new post-war relationship with the US is an urgent priority.
Under a status of forces agreement between the two countries, all U.S. troops are to withdraw by the end of next year. The Sept. 1 deadline for the end of combat operations was an additional marker that was part of Obama’s withdrawal plan.
U.S. forces have not carried out unilateral combat missions since June of last year, when Iraq took full responsibility for its own security.
After Tuesday, US soldiers will no longer engage in joint combat missions with the Iraqi military and will be relegated to small groups advising Iraqi forces. They will still be able to conduct missions to protect US personnel and US installations, including new diplomatic missions planned for four Iraqi cities.
Although the Iraqi security forces have improved dramatically, most officials believe it will be years before they are capable of defending their borders or air space without the help of other countries.
A U.S. military commander said Monday that more rocket and mortar attacks are were expected Wednesday around a ceremony marking a change of command from Army Gen. Ray Odierno, who has played a key role in the war, to Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin III, who will oversee next year’s withdrawal.
“As we take a look at the change of command activities, the principle threat would be indirect fire attacks both in the international zone and the victory base complex in an attempt to either embarrass the Maliki government… or to continue to portray the Iraqi security forces as ineffectual,” said Brig. Gen. Rob Baker, the 1st Armored Division deputy commander in charge of Baghdad, who said the U.S. believes fighters recently trained in Iran in improved mortar techniques were responsible for the spike in attacks.
A U.S. soldier was killed by a rocket in the normally calm southern port city of Basra on Sunday in the first fatal attack on American forces since combat troops withdrew this month.
But despite the challenges to both remaining U.S. troops and Iraqi leaders, Maliki broadcast confidence in his address Tuesday.
“Today Iraq is a master of its fate,” he said on TV. “The 31st of August will remain an immortal day that all Iraqis can be proud of.”
Some of the Iraqis responsible for that security however struck a more skeptical tone.
"We should be celebrating because the American's are an occupying force," says Harith Abu Muthanna, a federal policeman at a Baghdad checkpoint. "People celebrated the first stage of the withdrawal thinking they would not see American troops in the streets again... we don't know whether we're truly rid of them or not."
(McClatchy special correspiondent Sahar Issa contributed to this report. McClatchy and the Christian Science Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad.)