Iraqi forces have been fully in charge of security throughout the country since June 30 [AFP]
The Iraqi army and security forces have overcome serious challenges in the country since the US military withdrew from major urban centres a month ago, senior Iraqi officials have told Al Jazeera.
Tahseen al-Shaikhly, a spokesperson for the Law Enforcement Security Campaign, an ongoing joint security operation involving the ministries of justice, defence and the interior, says Iraqi forces passed two crucial “tests” in the past month.
“The first was on July 17, the ill-omened anniversary of the coup d’etat which brought the Baath Party to power in 1968, and the second was the anniversary of Imam Mousa al-Kadhim’s death. In past years, these two dates were marked by dozens of attacks and many deaths, but this year they passed smoothly and without incident,” al-Shaikhly said.
However, he cautioned that without US military support, Iraqi security forces continue to face security threats.
“Remember, the country’s forces had to be reconstituted following the US invasion in 2003.”
Despite al-Shaikhly’s vote of confidence in Iraq’s forces, local media – particularly, opposition newspapers – have been sceptical that a security mechanism will work in the long-term without political and national reconciliation.
|A wave of armed robberies have hit Iraqi
cities in the recent days
Walid al-Zubaidi, an Iraqi political analyst, believes local security forces face the daunting challenge of helping Iraqis overcome a “climate of fear” in the country and that the government must combat rampant corruption.
He says a recent robbery at a government-owned bank in a heavily-fortified district of the capital is evidence that the security situation is tenuous.
Rumours in Baghdad indicated that the robbery, which killed eight guards, had been carried out in collusion with security forces.
On July 31, police raided the home of an Iraqi army officer, but he had managed to escape.
“It is not a secret in Baghdad; people are talking about it all the time even on TV,” al-Zubaidi told Al Jazeera.
He added: “If the government does not fight corruption, they will never win the trust of Iraqi citizens, and eventually US forces will never leave.”
Support not needed
The US-Iraqi security pact, also known as the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa), which was approved by the parliament in November 2008, allows Iraqi forces to ask for US military support if they are facing a situation beyond their means.
However, both al-Shaikhly and al-Nujaifi confirmed that throughout July, Iraqi forces did not feel the need to call for back-up.
But there have been incidents which have escalated tensions between Baghdad and Washington.
On July 22, US forces on patrol in the Abu Ghraib suburb of the capital returned fire after coming under attack from an armed group, and killed three Iraqi civilians, including a child.
They then chased the armed group and raided nearby houses.
A senior Iraqi army officer who arrived on the scene accused US soldiers of indiscriminate fire and ordered their arrest.
The incident provoked much controversy when Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, told the Washington Post that the Iraqi officer who ordered the arrests had been “out of line”.
During his visit to Washington last week, al-Maliki added that the US-Iraqi security pact “clearly states that American forces have the right to defend themselves, and that’s what they did”.
Kamil Abu Laith, head of Abu Ghraib District Council, said the victims’ families will be compensated.
But he also stressed that US forces have withdrawn from major urban centres only and are still carrying out normal security operations beyond city borders.
Strengthening the bond
Meanwhile, in many parts of the country where violence had once forced local authorities to impose curfews there is a sense that the security situation might slowly be improving.
Ibtisam Ali from al-Hilla, Babil province said: “We hope things get better and better. There has been some improvement, but still it is not very stable.”
Shakir al-Ubeidi from Baqouba, in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, however, felt squeezed between security sweeps and attacks by armed groups.
He said: “We are still caught in the middle of the battle. We are not enjoying normal life at all.”
But nowhere have security improvements been more pronounced than in the multi-ethnic city of Mosul in the Nineveh province, 380km north of Baghdad.
Residents there told Al Jazeera that families have started to visit parks and walk the streets until late hours of the night.
“We are finally coming out of homes and enjoying the summer nights,” Mahitab Obeid said.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh province, says the improved security situation is largely due to a strengthened bond between Iraqis and the armed forces since the US military withdrew from the cities.
“The situation has been significantly improving. People have become more involved with security forces. They approach them normally and we have seen great examples of exchange and interaction between the two,” he told Al Jazeera.
“The US forces were an obstacle … At least people now are confident that they can approach and co-operate with Iraqi security forces that understand their language and customs.”