About 12,000 US soldiers and 4,000 British soldiers will leave Iraq by September, it was announced, hours after a Baghdad suicide bomber killed about 30 people in a chilling reminder of the nation’s still-shaky security.
The US troops will be removed from Baghdad and Anbar province – once the main battlefields of the war. All 4,000 British soldiers in southern Iraq are also due to leave.
A US spokesman, Major General David Perkins, said Iraq’s security had “greatly improved, and it has moved from a very unstable to a stable position”. He cited a 90% drop in violence that he called its lowest level since the summer of 2003.
Maj Gen Perkins described yesterday’s attack, the worst in Baghdad in months, as a sign that US-led coalition forces had militants on the run.
“We are by no means complacent,” he told reporters at a Baghdad news conference.
“We know that al-Qaida, although greatly reduced in capability and numbers, still is desperate to maintain relevance here in Iraq.”
Several hours earlier, the suicide bomber detonated his explosives as he drove his motorcycle into a group of people, many of them police recruits, waiting near a side entrance of Baghdad’s main police academy in a mainly Shiite area of the city.
Iraqi and US forces sealed off the scene, allowing only ambulances and fire engines to enter.
Nervous Iraqi troops fired in the air to prevent onlookers and reporters from getting too close.
Haitham Fadhel said he was standing in one of three lines of recruits arriving for their first day of special guard training courses at the academy. He was knocked unconscious and was wounded by shrapnel. Two of his friends were killed.
“We were feeling secure as we were waiting in a well-guarded area,” said Mr Fadhel, 24, from the mainly Shiite neighbourhood of New Baghdad.
“Before the explosion occurred I heard a loud shout saying ’Stop, stop, where are you going?’ Seconds later, a huge explosion shook the area.”
“I am just wondering how a big security breach can occur in such a secured area.”
No group claimed responsibility for the blast but suicide bombings are the signature attack of Sunni religious extremists, including al-Qaida.
The heavily fortified academy has been hit by several bombings.
Initial reports said 32 people were killed, including 19 recruits, nine policemen and four traffic police, and about 60 others were wounded.
Extremists increasingly have targeted Iraqi forces as they take over the country’s security so American troops can go home. Last week, President Barack Obama announced the end of all combat missions in Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving up to 50,000 US soldiers to train and assist Iraqi security forces. All US troops are to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
In an interview, Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki predicted the withdrawal would be “responsible” and said Iraqi military and police still needed weapons “in order to protect the internal security situation in the first place”.
“We, the Iraqi government, feel that the Iraqi security forces are capable of filling any vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces,” he told Iraqi government television.
At a news conference, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iraqi security forces should be able to secure the country by the end of 2011, but are not yet ready.
“We need some time,” Mr al-Dabbagh said.