Iraqi security forces paraded in tanks and armored vehicles across Baghdad yesterday as they took control of towns and cities nationwide from departing US troops six years after the invasion.
Iraq was celebrating a national holiday to mark the June 30 pullback, a milestone in the recovery of a country battered by war, insurgency and sectarian bloodshed that has left tens of thousands of people dead since 2003.
Iraqis had celebrated into Monday night but soldiers and police were out in force to prevent insurgent groups spoiling the party as US troops quit their posts in urban centers, ahead of complete pullout by the end of 2011.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, said the nation’s joy at the handover was mixed with sorrow for “beloved friends and relatives” who had been “targeted by terror.”
But he also took aim at critics of Iraq’s army and police and insisted they were up to the task of defending the country in the wake of the US pullback.
“It is a big mistake for people to think that the Iraqis will not handle the security issue,” Maliki said. “It is an offense 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.”
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani thanked US forces for their role in overthrowing former president Saddam Hussein 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 US troops killed since the invasion.
US 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 in charge,” he said.
Across Baghdad, tanks and armored vehicles manned by soldiers and police were decorated with artificial flowers, flags and banners, as nationalistic songs and popular music played.
The security shake-up was celebrated by huge crowds in Baghdad’s largest park on Monday.
Revelers had to undergo three security checks to enter but no one seemed to complain amid a jubilant atmosphere, where an onstage banner declared that Baghdad’s sovereignty and independence had been recovered.
Even policemen joined in the fun, dancing with the partygoers.