US pullback in Iraq 'important milestone': Obama

WASHINGTON, Stephen Collinson - President Barack Obama on Tuesday hailed the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi towns and cities as an "important milestone," but warned of difficult days of bloodshed and violence to come.
A careful White House also declined to declare victory, six years after the US invasion under ex-president George W. Bush spawned an insurgency that killed more than 4,300 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

US pullback in Iraq 'important milestone': Obama
"Today American troops have transferred control of all Iraqi cities and towns to Iraq's government and security forces," Obama said at the White House.
"The Iraqi people are rightfully treating this day as a cause for celebration. This an important step forward, as a sovereign and united Iraq continues to take control of its own destiny."
Obama, an early opponent of the war, who campaigned on a platform of bringing US troops home, declared in February that all US combat operations would end in August 2010 and said all soldiers would be out by the end of 2011.
Though hailing an "important milestone" in Iraq, Obama warned its torment may not be at an end, citing a "senseless" car bombing in the tense city of Kirkuk that killed 27 people.
"Iraq's leaders must now make some hard choices necessary to resolve key political questions to advance opportunity and provide security for their towns and their cities," Obama said, terming the pullback a "precious opportunity."
"Make no mistake, there will be difficult days ahead.
"We know that the violence in Iraq will continue... there are those who will test Iraq's security forces and the resolve of the Iraqi people through more sectarian bombings and the murder of innocent civilians.
"I am confident that those forces will fail. Today's 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."
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was repeatedly pressed to say whether the United States saw Tuesday's pullback as a long-awaited victory.
"We'll keep the banner printers from doing anything crazy," Gibbs said, in an apparent reference to a notorious "Mission Accomplished" poster displayed on a returning US aircraft carrier visited by Bush in May 2003.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates meanwhile warned of more "sporadic attacks" in Iraq, after a short trip to Germany to attend the change of command at EUCOM, the base of US operations in Europe.
"I think it's still a dangerous situation -- we lost four kids today," he said.
The military said four US soldiers stationed in Baghdad were killed on June 29, bringing to 4,321 the number of US soldiers killed since the 2003-US led invasion, according to an AFP tally based on the website
The president stepped up pressure on Iraq's leaders to take political steps to underwrite what the White House says are improving security conditions and also paid tribute to the role of US troops in the country.
"The fact that Iraqis are celebrating this day is a testament to the courage and capability and commitment of every single American who has served in Iraq," Obama said.
"Our troops have overcome every obstacle to extend this precious opportunity to the Iraqi people."
Iraqi security forces jubilantly paraded in tanks and armored vehicles as they took control of towns and cities, under an agreement reached between the US and Iraqi governments last year, but the celebrations were marred by the Kirkuk car bombing.
Obama opposed the US invasion of Iraq from the beginning, and spoke out against it when he was a lowly Illinois state senator in 2002, calling it a "dumb" war and warning of an occupation of indeterminate length.
His opposition to the conflict helped power his early primary campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination, against erstwhile rival, now secretary of state, Hillary Clinton who voted in the Senate to authorize the invasion.
According to a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released Tuesday, three-quarters of Americans support the withdrawal of combat troops from Iraqi cities and towns.
Fifty-two percent of those asked believe violence in Iraqi cities will increase after US troops withdrawal, with 32 percent saying things will remain about the same.

Wednesday, July 1st 2009
Stephen Collinson

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