By Matthew Rusling
WASHINGTON, July 20 (Xinhua) -- With the withdrawal
of U.S. troops from Iraq's cities and towns, the coming months will be a crucial
test of whether Iraqi forces can maintain long-term security, experts said.
U.S. President Barack Obama hailed the pullout as an
important step toward full withdrawal by 2012, but warned that the country would
see "difficult days" ahead.
"The transition is further proof that those who have
tried to pull Iraq into the abyss of disunion and civil war are on the wrong
side of history," said Obama in a recent speech.
U.S. troops began withdrawing on June 30 and
transferring security duties to Iraqi forces. They are expected to remain
outside urban areas and only intervene at Baghdad's request. The first test came
over the weekend when the Iraqi forces handled security for a major religious
event without U.S. support.
Record numbers of Shi'ite Muslims, around 6 million,
made pilgrimages to the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine in Baghdad, the site of
some of the bloodiest attacks since the onset of the war in 2003.
Police and troops deployed heavily on the main routes
across Baghdad while Army helicopters flew overhead.
While the event was touted as a success, some
violence occurred. Eight roadside explosive devices killed one man and wounded
40 others Friday, according to news reports.
Despite this initial security victory, more
challenges lie ahead. The most important of these is not only Iraqi forces'
ability to maintain unit cohesion and avoid corruption, but their will to do so,
as a lapse into sectarian strife among their ranks could cause considerable
disruption, according to Stratfor, a private intelligence company.
Also crucial is gaining the public's trust, as many
Iraqis harbor deep suspicion of security forces' sectarian leanings. For them,
the U.S. departure represents the disappearance of a watchdog against
questionable Iraqi soldiers and police officers, experts said. Indeed, some
Iraqis have accused local police of plotting recent violence against civilians,
according to news reports.
If they can overcome sectarian biases, however, Iraqi
forces' chances for success -- and the country's chances for long-term stability
-- are significant, the experts said. Still, their ability to do so remains
unclear, Stratfor said.
With national elections approaching in January, their
success is crucial for Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has staked his
reputation on security and the pullout of the U.S. forces. This weekend's events
are an early sign that his bets may pay off.
Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis at
Stratfor, said the Iraqi forces have an edge over the U.S. forces -- they know
the local language and landscape and can distinguish between Iraqis and foreign
Jim Phillips, senior research fellow at the Heritage
Foundation, a Washington, D.C. think tank, said that while U.S. soldiers have
other advantages -- including combat experience, leadership, morale, unit
cohesion and air and artillery support -- the Iraqi forces are more capable than
Still there are limits. Michael O'Hanlon, senior
fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said
they need the U.S. troops to gather intelligence via unmanned aerial vehicles.
But that is no great weakness, and the Iraqi forces have proven themselves in
firefights, he said.
Some units, however, are more prepared than others.
Bokhari noted security contingents in some towns are
just beginning to form. That is why the U.S. troops still linger in the outer
rings of cities not covered by the withdrawal agreement.
O'Hanlon said: "The best way to think of it is that
we have pulled out of Manhattan but there are a number of Staten Islands we are
But in a show of independence, the Iraqi forces did
not call on their U.S. counterparts in the first weeks since the handover, aside
from requests for intelligence assistance, according to wire reports.
Phillips, however, warns of a short-term spike in
violence as the U.S. troops withdraw.
Indeed, a recent spate of car bombs suggests al-Qaida
in Iraq or other terrorists are trying to derail the handover and re-ignite
sectarian strife, he said.
Shortly before the U.S. withdrawal, violence
increased sharply and killed 437 Iraqis, making June the bloodiest month in a
Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki condemned the attacks
as a bid to "undermine confidence in Iraq's own security forces."
Some fear the violence could spark a return to the
type of sectarian rivalries that ripped through the nation two years ago.
Feeling targeted, one sect could lash out against another, experts said.
But Bokhari said Iraqis are weary of violence -- a
sentiment reflected in February when al-Maliki's Dawa party won provincial
elections with a broad and nationalist message.
While small-scale factional clashes are possible,
they are unlikely to escalate into a full-blown civil war, as all groups have a
stake in the political system, he said.
O'Hanlon said low level suicide bombers could pose
some risks, but any sizable conflict would originate in the upper echelons of
government, and that is unlikely, he said.
"That would only happen if top level leaders dropped
the ball," he said.