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MID: US troops leave Iraqi cities as car bomb kills 26

By Arthur MacMillan
01 Jul 2009 2:52 AM

BAGHDAD, June 30 AFP - Iraqi security forces jubilantly paraded in tanks and armoured vehicles on Tuesday as they took control of towns and cities, but jubilation was marred by a car bomb that killed 26 people and injured 70.

Iraq marked the June 30 pullback of US troops with a national holiday six years after the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein but which sparked an insurgency and sectarian bloodshed that left tens of thousands dead.

American troops will quit their posts in urban centres by midnight, ahead of a complete pullout by the end of 2011.

Before a car bomb in the northern oil hub Kirkuk shattered the festivities and underscored the residual violence that plagues the country, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki took on critics of Iraq's army and police, insisting they were up to the task of defending the country in the wake of the US pullback.

"It is an offence to the Iraqis. The people who said that the foreign troops would never withdraw and would keep permanent bases in our country were giving a green light to the terrorists to kill civilians," he said.

Twenty-six people were killed and 70 wounded in the Kirkuk attack, according to a high-ranking police official.

Maliki, who laid a wreath at Iraq's tomb of the unknown soldier inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, wanted the pullback date to coincide with the outbreak in 1920 of a revolt against British occupation.

President Jalal Talabani thanked US forces for their role in overthrowing now executed dictator Saddam in 2003, and in the years of bloodshed that followed.

"They bore the burden and dangers against the most cruel regime and against the mutual enemy -- the terror," Talabani said on state television.

The handover coincided with a US army announcement that four of its soldiers died from combat-related injuries on Monday, taking to 4,321 the number of American troops killed since the invasion.

General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, told reporters he believed Iraq was now a better country.

"I believe the Iraqi people are much better off not having a dictator such as Saddam Hussein," he said. "They are now going to be able to see that they can move ahead and the people of Iraq will have a say in their government."

Odierno refused to give a number for how many US troops would be left in urban centres.

"The reason I won't do it is because it will be different every single day," he told US journalists in a video-briefing from Iraq, adding that the remaining US troops would be acting as trainers and advisers to Iraqi security forces.

In Beirut, visiting US Central Command chief General David Petraeus said the withdrawal was going smoothly.

"I believe that the process is moving smoothly, although there have been some sensational attacks," Petraeus said.

Tuesday's pullback is part of a security agreement signed in November covering the fate of the 133,000 US troops still in Iraq.

In the wake of bombings that have already killed more than 200 people this month, all leave for Iraqi security personnel was cancelled. And motorcycles, which have been used by several recent bombers, were banned from the streets.

Across Baghdad, tanks and armoured vehicles manned by soldiers and police and decorated with artificial flowers, flags and banners passed through the city, as nationalistic songs and popular music played.

"We are happy to receive the security responsibilities and we are able to totally protect our citizens," said policeman Ibrahim al-Mashhadani.

The security shake-up was celebrated by huge crowds in Baghdad's largest park on Monday. Revellers had to undergo three security checks to enter. Even policemen joined in the fun, dancing with the partygoers.

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

There have been several huge bombings since, the deadliest near Kirkuk on June 20 when 72 people were killed.

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

Three out of four Americans support the withdrawal from urban centres, although they believe the pullout may lead to increased violence, according to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll released on Tuesday.