Iraqi politicians of all stripes laud U.S. pullout
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi politicians from across the ethnic and sectarian divide Wednesday welcomed the U.S. troop withdrawal from cities as a step towards sovereignty, even though they feared it might trigger more violence.
U.S. combat troops pulled out of Iraq's towns and cities on Tuesday into rural bases, the first step of a bilateral security pact that requires all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by 2012. A small number of troops stayed behind as advisors and trainers.
Kurdish, Shi'ite and Sunni Arab politicians, who rarely agree on anything, saw the step as necessary but warned that militants would try to exploit any security gap.
Hours after Iraqis celebrated "Sovereignty Day," declared a national holiday, a car bomb killed 34 people in a Kurdish district of the ethnically mixed northern city of Kirkuk.
A spike in violence in the past 10 days -- including two of the biggest bombs for more than a year that killed 150 people between them -- has raised doubts about whether Iraqi forces are yet capable of handling the country's fragile security.
"The pullout is a very good step on the path to independence and sovereignty and Iraqis are glad of that," said Hashim al-Taie of the Accordance Front, the main Sunni Arab bloc in parliament. But he added that he feared insecurity. Many Sunnis fear being left at the mercy of Iraq's Shi'ite-led forces.
"A few months ago ministers were saying that Iraqi forces were not ready to take over. What's changed?" he said.
Iraqis report mixed feelings about the pullout. They are keen to enjoy sovereignty after years of foreign military occupation. But they also feel exposed to attacks by militants from whom U.S. forces have to some extent protected them.
Yet even Kurdish politicians, who welcomed the Americans as liberators more than any other Iraqi group, mostly agree it is time for them to leave urban areas.
"We have concerns. Some towns still have trouble -- mixed areas -- but those concerns should not prevent the withdrawal," said Mahmoud Othman, senior lawmaker from the main Kurdish alliance in parliament. Officials see tensions between Arabs and Kurds as the biggest threat to Iraq's long-term stability.
"Those divides between communities would be there even if the Americans stayed. It's between Iraqis. If they can't get together and solve their problems, what can the Americans do?"
Others noted that U.S. troops have moved to areas very close to the cities -- two of the biggest bases are next to Baghdad airport -- and so can be called on to help if needed.
"It is a redeployment rather than a pullout," said Basim Shareef, a member of the Shi'ite Islamist Fadhila party.
The office of Anti-American Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who bitterly opposed the pact to extend the U.S. presence, issued a statement calling the withdrawal a "medal of honour in the history of Iraqi resistance.
"This is the right decision ... it is a message that the time is ticking (for the U.S. military presence)," said independent parliamentarian Safia al-Souhail. "We have enough Iraqi security forces on the ground."
(Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad, Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk and Khaled Farhan in Najaf; Writing by Tim Cocks; Editing by Louise Ireland)
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