Iraqi leaders urge unity as US troops withdraw from towns

Baghdad, June 30: Iraqi leaders Tuesday called for vigilance and unity, as the country marked the planned withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities and towns.

‘Bless you. Bless you for your efforts to achieve this great success,’ Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told the ministers of defence, interior and national security and associated officers from the security services, in remarks broadcast on state television.

The government has declared Tuesday, the deadline for US soldiers to withdraw from urban areas in Iraq according to an Iraqi-US agreement signed in 2008, National Sovereignty Day.

Huge crowds gathered in Baghdad’s largest park Monday night to celebrate the withdrawal. Expatriate Iraqi singers Abid Falek, Salah Hassan and Qasim Sultan returned to the capital to perform. A military parade was scheduled to take place Tuesday in the heavily fortified Green Zone to mark the occasion.

A wave of lethal attacks has preceded the withdrawal. On Monday, leading Sunni politician Jalil Matar was among nine people killed in a spate of bombings across the country.

His murder followed the assassination two weeks ago of Harith al-Obeidi, the leader of the Iraq’s largest coalition of Sunni parties, and came at the end of a string of attacks that have left hundreds dead in recent weeks.

‘As we celebrate this day, we will not forget the bitterness of the losses we have recently suffered because of the repeated, desperate attempts by Al Qaeda and (Baathist) remnants to destabilise the country and spread panic,’ Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in a televised address.

‘The loss of our loved ones in (recent bombings in) Bataha, Sadr City and Taza has made us more determined to move forward, inspired by the souls of the martyrs,’ Talabani said.

‘Terrorists have targeted Iraq, its unity and the unity of the Iraqi people,’ al-Maliki said Tuesday. ‘They are trying to return Iraq to sectarian violence with a terrorist attack here and there, by targeting this sect or that. But we praise God that the age of sectarianism is over.’

‘For the sake of the martyrs and wounded, we must bind together as a country to sustain the successes we’ve achieved,’ al-Maliki told the assembled security officials.

Iraqi security forces are engaged in their biggest deployment since the US-led invasion of the country six years ago.

More than 130,000 US troops will remain in Iraq, and many of them will continue to work in Iraqi units.

‘After June 30, with US combat forces out of cities and villages, localities, we will still be in Iraq,’ US Ambassador to Iraq Christopher Hill said.

Talabani thanked the US and other international soldiers for their sacrifices.

‘As we celebrate this day, we must express our thanks and gratitude to our friends from the coalition forces who have borne a great burden and dangers, and have suffered human and material losses with us, first to rid Iraq of the worst totalitarian regime, then during the joint work of restoring security and order to create an atmosphere of stability and tranquility,’ he said.

Al-Maliki and Talabani urged the Iraqi security services to use a firm hand to keep the country safe.

‘Some today talk about the detainees and their rights,’ al-Maliki said. ‘We have not ignored those concerns. But we ask them why they would ignore… the innocent victims of terrorism.’

He asked the assembled officers and ministers ‘to continue performing their duties in accordance with the constitution, law, and human rights. Because today we stand together with all Iraq against the murderers and criminals.’

‘The determined efforts of our valiant armed forces are commendable deserve our gratitude,’ Talabani said. ‘But security will only be fully restored… under the tent of national reconciliation with the achievement of genuine national unity.

‘(We must) strengthen al-Maliki’s national unity government to include all those who believe in the march of democracy and real civic participation,’ Talabani said.