BAGHDAD – Four U.S. soldiers were killed in combat shortly before the American military completed a withdrawal from Iraq's cities, and the prime minister assured Iraqis that government forces taking control of urban areas on Tuesday were more than capable of protecting the country.
Nouri al-Maliki said in a televised address that "those who think that Iraqis are not able to protect their country and that the withdrawal of foreign forces will create a security vacuum are committing a big mistake."
The streets of Baghdad were relatively quiet, as the Iraqi government named June 30 National Sovereignty Day and declared it a public holiday.
In the walled-off Green Zone in central Baghdad, al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders appeared at a military parade to mark the day.
Iraqi infantry soldiers wearing khaki uniforms and policemen in blue uniforms marched in formation near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier while Iraqi helicopters flew overhead. U.S.- and Russian-made tanks also drove by along with blue-and-white Iraqi Humvees.
The withdrawal that was completed on Monday was part of a U.S.-Iraqi security pact and marks the first major step toward withdrawing all American forces from the country by Dec. 31, 2011. President Barack Obama has said all combat troops will be gone by the end of August 2010.
In the attack Monday against U.S. forces, the military said the four soldiers who were killed served with the Multi-National Division-Baghdad but did not provide further details pending notification of their families. It said they died as a "result of combat related injuries."
It was the deadliest attack against U.S. forces since May 21, when three soldiers were killed and nine others were wounded in a roadside bombing in southern Baghdad.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq said the latest deaths show militants remain a threat but said he was confident Iraqi security forces could face the challenge.
"It reminds me that there are still dangers out there. There are still people out there who do not want the government of Iraq to succeed. They do not want to see a democratic country move forward," Gen. Ray Odierno said Tuesday at a news conference.
He said many of the attacks in Baghdad were being carried out by militants being funded or trained by Iran, including powerful roadside bombs and rocket strikes against the Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy.
But, he said, the number of such attacks was "significantly smaller" due to security measures making them more difficult to carry out.
"Iran is still supporting, funding and training surrogates who operate inside of Iraq. They have not stopped and I don't think they will stop," Odierno told reporters at Camp Victory, a U.S. military base on the western edge of Baghdad.
He also said that 130,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, although he declined to say how many would remain in cities as trainers and advisers.
"We will be here, we are not leaving," he said. "We'll continue to be in support of the Iraqi security forces to maintain and improve stability throughout the country and I feel confident that we'll be able to do that."
There was a significant spike in violence before the June 30 withdrawal. More than 250 people were killed in a series of bombings, including one on June 20 that left 81 dead outside a mosque in northern Iraq and another in a Baghdad market on June 24 that killed 78. Al-Maliki has blamed the attacks on al-Qaida in Iraq and the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
"I congratulate the Iraqi people on this day, June 30, when the U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq cities in accordance to the forces withdrawal agreement," al-Maliki said. "We consider this day as a national holiday and it is a joint achievement by all Iraqis."
President Jalal Talabani said the day could not have happened without the help of the United States, which invaded Iraq in 2003 and ousted Saddam, who was later convicted by an Iraqi court and executed in December 2006.
"While we celebrate this day, we express our thanks and gratitude to our friends in the coalition forces who faced risks and responsibilities and sustained casualties and damage," Talabani said.
Describing June 30 as a "glorious page" in Iraq's history he warned that "security will not be achieved completely without the proper political environment and without a real national unity and reconciliation."
The midnight handover to Iraqi forces filled many citizens with pride but also trepidation that government forces are not ready and that violence will rise. Shiites fear more bombings by Sunni militants; Sunnis fear that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces will give them little protection.
If the Iraqis can hold down violence in the coming months, it will show the country is finally on the road to stability. If they fail, it will pose a challenge to Obama's pledge to end an unpopular war that has claimed the lives of more than 4,300 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Some U.S. troops will remain in the cities to train and advise Iraqi forces. U.S. combat troops will return to the cities only if asked. The U.S. military will continue combat operations in rural areas and near the border, but only with the Iraqi government's permission.
The U.S. has not said how many troops will be in the cities in advisory roles, but the vast majority of the U.S. forces remaining in the country will be in large bases scattered outside cities.
There have been some worries that the 650,000-member Iraqi military is not ready to maintain stability and deal with a stubborn insurgency.