Explosions lit up the night sky over Baghdad tonight, but these were fireworks of joy, not bombs of death. As the clock struck midnight, the U.S. handed over control of Baghdad and other urban areas to Iraqi forces. Said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki:
"The withdrawal of American troops is completed now from all cities after everything they sacrificed for the sake of security. We are now celebrating the restoration of sovereignty."
The pullout is part of President Obama's schedule of have all American forces out of Iraq by the end up 2011. Combat troops are expected to leave by the end of August 2010.
Thousands of people turned out for the fireworks party at a park in Baghdad. Security officials urged people to stay away, following the deaths of 250 people in bombings over the past 10 days. Waleed al-Bahadili was one of those who ignored the warning:
"All of us are happy — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds on this day. The Americans harmed and insulted us too much."
While there is indeed joy, there is just as much trepidation. Many fear that government forces, which have relied on the Americans for everything over the past few years, 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.
Despite the formal pullback, some U.S. troops will remain in the cities to train and advise Iraqi forces. 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 more than 130,000 U.S. forces remaining in the country will be in large bases scattered outside cities.
The Pentagon would not comment on today's handover. But David Petraeus, commander of U.S. troops in the Middle East, said he thinks Iraq is ready:
"While certainly there will be challenges — there are many difficult political issues, social issues, governmental development issues — we feel confident in the Iraqi security forces continuing the process of taking over the security tasks in their own country."
Ready or not, Iraqi forces are assuming the job. Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani told the AP:
"Iraqi citizens will see no U.S. soldiers in their cities. They will see only Iraqi troops protecting them."