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MID: Baghdad parties ahead of US pullout

By Ammar Karim
30 Jun 2009 5:29 AM

BAGHDAD, June 29 AFP - Tens of thousands of Iraqis partied amid massive security in Baghdad on Monday to mark the imminent pullout of US troops from urban areas and celebrate the restive nation's reclaimed sovereignty.

The American pullback, agreed under a security accord signed last year, will be completed on Tuesday, which has been declared a national holiday, but soldiers and police were out in force as festivities began.

"Since 2003, I have never been to a party," Ahmed Ali, 20, told AFP as a large celebration got under way in Zawra Park, the largest in the capital, "but today I am coming to hear the singers I love."

Popular Iraqi singers including Salah Hassan, Kassem Sultan and Abed Falek, who all live abroad, had travelled to Baghdad for the occasion.

Revellers had to undergo three security checks to enter the park but no one seemed to complain amid a jubilant atmosphere, where an onstage banner declared Baghdad's sovereignty and independence had been recovered.

Even policemen joined in the fun, dancing with the party-goers.

"Today is the day that we got back our country," said Salim Mohammed, from the sprawling Shi'ite working-class district of Sadr City.

>From July 1, Iraq's army and police will take sole charge of security in the country's cities, towns and villages.

Baghdad civil defence spokesman Tahsin al-Sheikhli said: "All Iraqis are happy today because it's the first day that they're going to protect themselves.

"We know that Iraq's enemies will attempt to disrupt security but our forces are ready to take them on."

In the wake of several massive bombings that have killed more than 200 people this month, all leave for security force personnel has been cancelled. Motorcycles, the favoured transport of several recent bombers, have been banned from the streets.

"Our expectation is that maybe some criminals will try to continue their attacks," said Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf, the interior ministry's operations director and spokesman.

"That is why orders came from the highest level of the prime minister that our forces should be 100 per cent on the ground until further notice."

On Monday, the former defence ministry building in the capital, taken over in the wake of the US-led invasion of 2003, was handed back to the Iraqi government.

"This marks the end of the rule of the multinational force," said General Abboud Qambar, commander of Baghdad Operation Command, the central headquarters for the Iraqi security forces.

In the first reaction from Iraq's dominant Shi'ite Muslim community, Sheikh Ali Bashir al-Najafi, one of the community's four supreme religious leaders, said the US withdrawal was a significant sign of progress.

"It is a step we hope to follow up with other steps to achieve independence and stability of the country, and it is a real test of the efficiency of the security forces to shoulder their responsibilities," he told AFP.

"Iraq will after this day be just like many other Arab countries where there is the presence of foreign troops organised according to agreements signed between the country and the government of those forces."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned earlier this month that insurgent groups and militias were likely to step up attacks in the run-up to the June 30 deadline in a bid to undermine confidence in Iraq's security forces.

There have been several large bombings since, the deadliest of which came in the northern oil hub of Kirkuk on June 20, when a truck loaded with explosives was detonated, leaving 72 people dead and more than 200 wounded.

The toll from a bomb in a market in Sadr City five days ago was also bloody, with at least 62 dead and 150 wounded.

But Maliki and senior government officials have since insisted Iraq's 750,000 soldiers and police can defend the nation against attacks.

Only a small number of US forces in training and advisory roles will remain in urban areas, with the bulk of American troops in Iraq, 131,000 according to Pentagon figures, quartered elsewhere.

The June 30 withdrawal is the prelude to a complete American pullout by the end of 2011.

The Status of Forces Agreement, which set the pullback deadline, says US commanders must seek permission from Iraqi authorities to conduct operations, but American troops retain a unilateral right to "legitimate self-defence".