Iraq Taking Over Security as Deadline Approaches for U.S. Withdrawal From Cities

Iraqi forces are successfully filling the security vacuum as U.S. combat troops withdraw from Iraqi cities ahead of a June 30 deadline, Iraq's U.N. envoy said Thursday.

Ambassador Hamid al-Bayati said Iraq has already taken responsibility for 90 of the 138 military sites where U.S. troops were in charge of security, and by the end of the month the ministries of defense and interior will be responsible for the remaining 48 sites.

The withdrawal from the cities will be a major test for Iraq's army and police, which failed to stem a wave of Shiite-Sunni slaughter in 2006. That prompted the U.S. troop surge of 2007 which is widely credited with quelling the violence.

Many Iraqis are happy to see foreign soldiers off their streets but fear their own security forces may not be up to the challenge.

U.S. troops are moving to bases on the edge of cities by June 30 in case the Iraqis call for help. But under the U.S.-Iraqi security pact reached last year, all U.S. troops will leave the country by the end of 2011 — including the roughly 50,000 who will be left behind after the combat troops withdraw next year.

"The process of building Iraqi defense capabilities to fill the security vacuum created with the withdrawal of friendly forces continues successfully," al-Bayati assured the U.N. Security Council.

He said the security situation continues to improve, noting that between March and May the number of violent acts decreased by 76 percent compared to the same period in 2008.

The improvement confirms "the development of security forces' capability and the significant decline in the capabilities of terrorist groups," al-Bayati said.

He said the latest Iraqi figures indicate that "Iraqi security forces have been able to dismantle and destroy 90 percent of these groups."

Al-Bayati singled out the April 23 arrest of the self-described leader of an al-Qaida front group, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. But a man purporting to be al-Baghdadi issued an audio tape on a Web site earlier this month saying the government's claim that it had captured him was "a pure lie."

The audio could not be independently confirmed, but the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group that monitors such Web sites said the voice seemed like that of the person previously identified as al-Baghdadi, who heads the Islamic State of Iraq.

The issue has implications for the professionalism of the Iraqi security forces, which handled the arrest without U.S. assistance, as well as for the Sunni insurgency.

Staffan de Mistura, who is stepping down as the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, told the council that "the past two years have seen the Iraqis progressively fatigued over civil strife, slowly shedding sectarian divisions, seeking to reconcile ... and bring their differences into the legislative area."

"The Iraqi state is consistently building credible and independent institutions: a functioning cabinet, a reliable Parliament, an experienced Electoral Commission, and an increasingly capable Iraqi security force," he said.

De Mistura said spikes in violent attacks against innocent civilians "should be viewed as attempts by isolated elements or groups trying to produce a feeling of insecurity — but they are not capable of destabilizing the country."

U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice stressed that the U.S. drawdown and troop withdrawal will "in no way diminish our long-term partnership with Iraq."

"We will continue to build a strong, lasting strategic relationship with Iraq — one that respects the sovereignty and serves the interests of both our countries," Rice said.

Al-Bayati urged the Security Council to restore the sovereignty and international status that Iraq had before Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

He said the government has again requested Arab countries to cancel Iraq's multi-billion dollar debt, owed mainly to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Al-Bayati said Iraq and Kuwait have started negotiations on US$24 billion owed to Kuwait, which Iraq would like to see canceled or reduced.