BAGHDAD – Hours before the deadline for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities, the top American military commander in the Middle East expressed confidence Monday that Iraqi security forces are ready despite a string of deadly bombings in recent days.
The blasts, which have killed more than 250 people in a little over a week, have raised concerns that violence will spike in Iraq's urban areas after the last U.S. troops leave. But the Iraqi government has said its forces are prepared and has declared Tuesday "National Sovereignty Day," a public holiday that will be marked by festivities.
The celebrations began Monday in Baghdad as patriotic songs rang out from speakers mounted at police stations and military checkpoints. Iraqi military vehicles decorated with flowers and Iraqi flags patrolled the city.
U.S. combat troops must withdraw from Iraqi cities by June 30 according to a security agreement that also requires all American forces to leave the country by the end of 2011. Some Americans will remain in the cities as trainers and advisers, but the bulk of the more than 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq have assembled in large bases outside urban centers.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told The Associated Press that when the sun rises on Tuesday "Iraqi citizens will see no U.S. soldiers in their cities. They will see only Iraqi troops protecting them."
The commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, Gen. David Petraeus, Gen. David Petraeus, expressed concern about the recent spate of high-profile bombings but said the average daily number of attacks remained low at 10 to 15 compared with 160 in June 2007.
"While certainly there will be challenges — there are many difficult political issues, social issues, governmental development issues — we feel confident in the Iraqi security forces continuing the process of taking over the security tasks in their own country," said Petraeus after meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo.
The top U.S. military commander in Baghdad, Maj. Gen. Daniel Bolger, echoed Petraeus' confidence, saying he believes Iraqi troops can effectively safeguard the capital's five million people.
"On the eve of the 30th of June 2009 in accord with a security agreement between Iraq and America, Iraqis take the lead in Baghdad," said Bolger as he handed over control of Iraq's former defense ministry building, which had served as a joint base with Iraqi troops.
"God willing they will meet this challenge with courage," said Bolger, who handed over a symbolic gold key to the defense ministry to Lt. Gen. Abboud Gambar, the chief of operations for Baghdad.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned they expect more violence in the coming days as militants try to undermine confidence in the government. Petraeus said there will be coordination centers in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra where American forces will share intelligence and respond to any Iraqi requests for help.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari expressed little concern Monday, declaring June 30 "an important day in Iraq's history ... that will pave the way for the complete withdrawal of U.S. and foreign forces from Iraq."
"The Iraqi government is confident of the capabilities of our armed and security forces to handle security issues and control the situation despite the attacks and explosions carried by terrorist groups and these attacks will not affect the process" of withdrawal, said Zebari.
The Iraqi government plans to hold a large party Tuesday in one of Baghdad's main parks on the west side of the Tigris River that will include popular singers and fireworks. The celebration will be broadcast on the other side of the river on a giant screen that was being installed Monday.
Elsewhere in Iraq, two deadly incidents served as a reminder that militants have not given up their efforts to disrupt the improving stability over the last two years.
Six police officers and a Kurdish soldier were killed Monday after a car bomb exploded as they were trying to defuse it, according to police and hospital officials.
Another two officers died in Mosul trying to defuse a bomb hidden under a small bridge, police said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
In Baghdad, the government has bolstered security: banning motorcycles — which were used in three deadly bombings — beefing up checkpoints and identity checks. But al-Bolani, the interior minister, said authorities did not intend to declare a curfew.
"The success achieved today should not let us forget the big challenges ahead of us because building the state is a bigger challenge than its liberation," Iraqi Parliament Speaker Ayad al-Samarraie told a news conference.