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Iraq eager to see U.S. troops leave

Though some Iraqis fear that the withdrawal could lead to greater instability, others seem to think a quick U.S. departure is most preferable.

October 23, 2011|By Raheem Salman and Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times
  • Abbas Fadel offers juice to celebrate the announcement that U.S. troops would be leaving Iraq by year's end.
Abbas Fadel offers juice to celebrate the announcement that U.S. troops… (Nabil al-Jurani, Associated…)

Reporting from Baghdad and Beirut — More than 1 million Americans have served in Iraq, and almost 4,500 lost their lives there. Now the Iraqis have given the U.S. military an unequivocal message: Go home.

Eight years after U.S. troops overthrew Saddam Hussein, there is little enthusiasm among people on the street for a sustained U.S. presence.

And although some Iraqis undoubtedly fear that the U.S. withdrawal could lead to greater instability, others — notably the lawmakers elected after the U.S.-enabled democratic transition — appear to think that a quick U.S. departure is about the best thing that could happen.

In the United States, the debate over Iraq focuses on the possibility of greater insecurity once U.S. troops leave. Advocates of sustaining a U.S. military presence in Iraq argue that even a limited number of troops could act as a counterweight against Iran's growing influence in the country in the wake of Hussein — who was an implacable foe of the Islamic Republic — and since the emergence of a Shiite-dominated government with close ties to Tehran.

In Iraq, however, many associate the U.S. presence with instability, violence and suspect motives in a conflict that is believed to have cost at least 100,000 Iraqi lives. These critics view U.S. troops as a lightning rod for militia attacks.

A representative of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Shiite-led ruling coalition said Iraqis were "thankful" for the role of the U.S. and other nations in ousting Hussein, but another official added that the Americans "put the country on the brink of civil war."

"They were part of the reason behind the ethnic and sectarian tension," said Saad Muttalbi.

The Shiites have long been cool to U.S. troops in Iraq. But leading politicians from Sunni and Kurdish blocs who once welcomed the American presence now also agree that the U.S. must leave.

The largely Sunni Iraqiya bloc headed by Iyad Allawi has gone on record against extending the stay of U.S. troops beyond the end of the year.

Omar Jubbori, a member of the Iraqiya bloc, said Washington would be better off supporting Iraq through economic and "other channels, rather than a military presence, about which Iraqi public opinion is clear."

Even lawmakers from Iraqi Kurdistan, where U.S. forces were warmly received in 2003, no longer seem enthusiastic about American boots on the ground.

"An American presence is not a condition to solve our problems," said Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Kurdish coalition. "They've been here for years, and there are still problems in Iraq."

In his speech Friday, President Obama said U.S. forces were leaving "with their heads held high, proud of their success."

About 40,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq, down from a high of more than 160,000. All are scheduled to be gone by Dec. 31.

The U.S. had sought an agreement to maintain a small military presence to continue to train and advise Iraqi forces, but it foundered on Washington's insistence that U.S. military personnel have legal immunity from Iraqi law. Iraqis refused to budge on the point.

"I was so happy to hear that the Americans are leaving our country," said Firs Fertusi, 33, a former fighter in the disbanded Mahdi Army, founded by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr. "They destroyed our country. They created so much tension among Iraqis."

Sadr, who controls a key parliamentary bloc in the ruling coalition, had threatened renewed attacks on U.S. troops if they didn't leave.

Yet for all the apparent antagonism, some still support an American presence.

Ali Jaff, a pro-democracy activist, said he was worried that without direct U.S. influence, "new episodes of violations of human rights" could erupt.

And Raad Hussein, an engineer in Baghdad's Sadr City district, said he feared the return of "masked gunmen wearing black," a common sight during the worst of the sectarian violence that had ravaged the nation.

"I think we will regret the Americans' departure," Hussein said.

Such views are not part of official Iraqi government policy, however.

Security is an "Iraqi responsibility" that Baghdad is keen to assume, Ali Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, said recently, adding: "We can't keep foreign troops in our country."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

McDonnell reported from Beirut and special correspondent Salman from Baghdad.

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