4 Americans killed as Iraq takes over its own security

McClatchy NewspapersJune 30, 2009 

BAGHDAD — On a historic day for Americans and Iraqis alike — a rare if not unprecedented handoff of military sovereignty in an active war zone — the violence that's marred six years of U.S.-led occupation struck again.

Four American service members were killed Monday in a still-sketchy incident, and 28 Iraqis died Tuesday in a bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk, which has become the epicenter of recent insurgent bomb attacks.

The U.S. military command refused to provide any details of how the American troops died. Security officials in Kirkuk said that many women and children were among the casualties there, who included at least 93 wounded. The carnage was caused by a bomb concealed in a Mercedes sedan that exploded at 5:30 p.m. in a market. Two weeks ago, a truck bomb killed 72 people and wounded 135 in Kirkuk.

The violence cast a shadow over the ceremonies and celebrations Tuesday on a national holiday that marked the transfer of security responsibility to Iraq from the U.S. The passing of the military baton proceeded, but only after both sides avoided a 24-hour miscalculation over the timetable.

The American and Iraqi militaries had different notions of when the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from major cities would start. The Americans thought that "after June 30," as written in the status of forces agreement, meant 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, July 1. The Iraqis — whose timeline ultimately prevailed — interpreted the dawn of their new authority as when the clock ticked past midnight to Tuesday, June 30. That's one reason that so many Iraqis celebrated the handoff of authority Monday night with singing, dancing and parties in their streets and parks.

In the end, once both sides realized the communications breakdown, the Americans simply told their forces to start abiding by the new rules 23 hours and 59 minutes earlier than they'd planned. No major incidents were attributed to the near-fumble of the handover.

"The Americans showed trepidation as it neared midnight," said U.S. Maj. Scott Nauman, standing in one of the new joint operations centers in Baghdad, "and then excitement. It was: 'It's yours. Good luck. Call us if you need us.' "

Iraq formally took control in a ceremony led by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki with minimal American participation. Maliki and senior Iraqi military officials and members of parliament attended a military parade in the morning at a park in Baghdad's well-guarded International Zone. Some U.S. officers also sat under a tent and watched Iraqi military units stream past the khaki-colored memorial to Iraq's Unknown Soldier, built by Saddam Hussein.

Maliki said the withdrawal of American combat forces from "cities and towns confirms the correctness of our vision and our firm position since the start of the negotiations process: that Iraqi sovereignty is a red line that cannot be passed over in any way."

No Americans spoke at the ceremony.

The celebration was muted in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, with light traffic and children playing soccer on side streets. Iraqi security vehicles set up hundreds of checkpoints throughout the city decorated like Christmas trees. Police SUVs were festooned with ribbons, streamers and artificial flowers.

"Sure, we are happy not to see them (American forces) anymore, but we want to get rid of them forever," said Yousof Othman, a 45-year-old calligrapher, in Sadr City, a crowded slum in eastern Baghdad.

In the Karkh district of northwest Baghdad, Ahmed Hasen, 40, who works in a mobile phone shop, said that since the 2003 invasion "we have gained nothing but a larger number of beggars on the streets. So what if they left the cities or if they didn't? They are still there! Who is the government kidding?"

Other Iraqis were more upbeat, especially army and national police officers. At a meeting Monday of Iraqi and U.S. Army operations officers in northwest Baghdad, Maj. Mu'aid l-Sudaani reviewed the new rules with five Iraqi army and two national police officers from the 22nd Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Division. "It's a sensitive period of time, so let's put more effort into it," he said. "We just have to get by it."

Nauman, the operations officer of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, in the 1st Infantry Division, took the men on a tour of the new joint operations center, where information will be shared between the nations' militaries as never before. "Any help you need is only a radio call away," he said. Added Lt. Col. John Vermeesch, "We are still standing by to assist you."

One of the first new joint patrols walked through an open-air market Tuesday morning in Shulla, in northwest Baghdad. Ten Bravo Company soldiers from the 1st Battalion linked up with two Iraqi enlisted men.

Capt. Steve Neves, who's from Boston, asked Hamza Allul Cafak, a schoolteacher, what he thought of the handover.

"It's a very happy day for Iraqis," he said, standing outside his father's cloth shop. "Now we hope coalition forces can start building the country."

Iraqi army Sgt. Ahmded Raiael Base was walking with the Americans. He said that their departure — even if only to a few miles away — "gives us more responsibility. I'm ready."

One of the main provisions of the status of forces agreement is that the Americans will help Iraq's military whenever it asks. As the U.S. company was returning to its forward operating base in southeast Baghdad, the Iraqis put in a request.

At an army checkpoint, the Humvees and mine-resistant vehicles stopped along a highway. An Iraqi officer told Neves that there was a suspicious box in the road. Several soldiers left their vehicles and approached the box. A staff sergeant crept up to it, and gently pulled open a yellow plastic bag in the box.

Inside was a woman's purse. He stomped the box flat on the median, and gave the purse to the Iraqi officer. The convoy moved on back to its base.

Tharp reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondents Laith Hammoudi, Jenan Hussein and Sahar Issa contributed to this article.)

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Read what Iraqis think at McClatchy's Inside Iraq.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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