BAGHDAD – The U.S. military announced Sunday that 12,000 American soldiers would withdraw from Iraq by September, marking the first step in the Obama administration’s plan to pull U.S. combat forces out of the country by August 2010.
In setting the deadline last month, President Barack Obama declared that the United States would restrict itself to achievable goals before departing, and the timing of Sunday’s announcement underscored that Iraq is likely to remain dangerous, turbulent and vulnerable to spectacular acts of bloodshed during an American withdrawal.
Only hours before the announcement, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle plowed into a crowd gathered at the entrance of the police academy in Baghdad, killing 28 people and wounding dozens more. Survivors recounted scenes of mayhem and carnage in the bombing’s aftermath, as ambulances tried to force their way through snarled traffic and police fired in the air – either in confusion or, fearing a second bomb, to try to disperse people.
By afternoon, there was little sign of the attack, save for the shattered glass that littered the asphalt. A tattered poster left over from January’s municipal elections hung from a bridge pillar. “With the blood of our martyrs, Iraq is liberated,” it read.
Under the Obama administration’s plan, major reductions in the more than 130,000 troops in Iraq will be postponed until after elections in December to choose a new parliament, a vote that nearly everyone in the country sees as a potential watershed moment. A U.S.-Iraqi agreement negotiated last year requires all U.S. troops to depart by the end of 2011, a deadline that Iraqi officials reiterated Sunday.
“The Iraqi government has no intention to accept the presence of any foreign troops or bases after 2011,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesman.
But long before then, the posture of the U.S. military will have changed dramatically. Under the U.S.-Iraqi agreement, American troops must leave Iraqi cities by the end of June, and Perkins said that two combat brigades scheduled to leave by September would not be replaced. That would reduce the number of combat brigades in the country from 14 to 12. An F-16 squadron, along with some support units, also will depart, as will the remaining 4,000 British soldiers.
At their peak, U.S. troops numbered more than 165,000. As many as 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq even after combat troops leave to conduct training and what officials describe as counterterrorism operations.
“We are by no means complacent,” Maj. Gen. David Perkins said in announcing the withdrawal. “We know that al-Qaida, although greatly reduced in capability and numbers, still is desperate to maintain relevance here.”
Perkins said remaining troops would be redeployed around the country. Although attacks have diminished dramatically, an insurgency still rages in the northern city of Mosul, along one of the country’s ethnic fault lines. Diyala Province, with its mix of Sunni and Shiite Arabs and Kurds, has remained dangerous, despite repeated Iraqi and U.S. offensives to quell fighting there.
“We will not leave any seams in regards to security,” Perkins said. “We know how to do this. This is not the first time we’ve reduced our forces.”
In Sunday’s attack, the assailant detonated bombs that were strapped to both his body and the motorcycle in a heavily guarded part of Baghdad that is home to the Oil Ministry and other military and government offices.
Men had gathered outside the academy in hopes of becoming recruits. Survivors said police had left them waiting in the street for more than two hours without instructions, and some expressed anger at their vulnerability.