Reporting from Baghdad — Iraqis danced in the streets when U.S. troops withdrew from their cities a little over a year ago. After the last American combat brigade trundled across the border into Kuwait early Thursday, reversing a journey that began more than seven years ago, there was no rejoicing.
Instead, a mood of deep apprehension tinged with bitterness is taking hold as Iraqis digest the reality that the American invaders whom they once feared would stay forever are in fact going home, when their country is in the throes of a deep political crisis that many think could turn increasingly violent.
"I'm not happy at all. I'm worried. They're leaving really early," said Wissam Sabah, a carpet seller in one of Baghdad's shopping districts. "We don't have a government and we don't know what is going to happen next. Maybe we will go back to civil war.
"The situation is getting worse every day. The politicians are inflaming the situation, there is a battle between them, and I am 100% certain it will be reflected in the streets."
U.S. combat operations in Iraq won't officially end until Aug. 31, the deadline set by President Obama for the reduction of the force to 50,000 troops involved in what the military calls "stability operations."
But with the departure to Kuwait this week of the last combat brigade this week, the formal battle mission is now essentially over. In coming days, 2,000 more troops from units scattered around the country will depart, bringing the number remaining down to the 50,000 promised by the president.
The U.S. military emphasizes that it is a sizeable number of troops, and that they will be equipped with considerable firepower. Fighter jets and attack helicopters will remain, as will about 4,500 Special Forces members who will continue to carry out counter-terrorism missions alongside Iraqi counterparts.
The soldiers staying behind have been rebranded from combat troops into six advise-and-assist brigades, which will focus on mentoring Iraqi security forces until the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for the departure of all U.S. forces under the terms of a 2008 security agreement with Iraq.
But many Iraqis worry that the time is wrong for a troop reduction whose date was a result of Obama's campaign promise to bring troops home. Parliamentary elections in March that were supposed to cement Iraq's fledgling democracy have instead triggered a deeply destabilizing political standoff between factions that got roughly similar numbers of votes and now cannot agree on who should be in charge.
"Some people think it's a run-out. An irresponsible withdrawal," Kurdish legislator Mahmoud Othman said, echoing Obama's pledge to bring about a "responsible withdrawal" of U.S. troops. "This is about what's going on in America, not about what's going on on the ground."
On the ground, there has been no dramatic deterioration in security, at least not yet. But many Iraqis are concerned about the recent uptick in the number of shootings and assassinations across Baghdad and in the still troubled provinces.
A rash of assassinations of judges, traffic policemen, senior civil servants and members of the Iraqi security forces has stirred fear that insurgents are more ubiquitous than had been thought. A suicide bombing Tuesday in Baghdad targeting army recruits, in which 63 people died, called into question the Iraqi security forces' ability to take care of its own, let alone the safety of civilians.
"I'm surprised they're going because the situation is really uncertain, really tense," said Mohammed Khalid, 22, whose toy shop is lined with blond-haired dolls dressed in pink and a fearsome array of plastic rifles, pistols and automatic weapons.
"The Americans should stay until the Iraqi army can control Iraq," he said.
The effect of the withdrawal may be more psychological than real. U.S. and Iraqi officials point out that American troops have for the last year played little part in securing the urban centers where the insurgency is most active. U.S. troops were redeployed to the outskirts of the cities in June 2009 under the terms of the 2008 security agreement, and Iraqi forces have been in charge of urban areas since then.
Gen. Babakir Zebari, chief of staff of the Iraqi armed forces, predicted that the shift in the American mission would have no major effect, and said he was confident that the Iraqi security forces could continue to maintain stability.
"Aug. 31 is not going to be very important," he said in a recent interview. "This withdrawal is gradual. It has been going on since last year. And up till now we have had no problems."
A group of Iraqi soldiers standing guard beside their U.S.-supplied Humvee on a major Baghdad street didn't seem so sure.
One of the soldiers, when asked whether he thought security would deteriorate without U.S. combat forces, replied, "Of course, because we have no government." The soldier, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, made it clear he wasn't happy to see the Americans go.
"I wish they had taken me with them," he said. "I don't want to be here."
Times staff writer Nadeem Hamid contributed to this report.