Fireworks lit up the night sky over Baghdad tonight as Iraqis celebrated the withdrawal of all U.S. combat troops from the country's cities, the first milestone in a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement that calls for the departure of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
Under the agreement, Iraqi forces were to assume formal control of security in Baghdad and Iraq's major cities as U.S. combat troops withdrew to areas outside the cities by June 30.
The date has long been anticipated by Iraqis and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki declared Tuesday a public holiday: National Sovereignty Day.
The top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told "Fox News Sunday" this weekend that the United States had already completed the withdrawal before the deadline.
"We have already moved out of the cities," Odierno said. "We've been slowly doing it over the last eight months. And the final units have moved out of the cities over the last several weeks.
"It is time for them to take responsibility inside the cities," Odierno continued. "It's time for this partnership to have an Iraqi lead, it's time for this partnership to have the Iraqis out in front."
Under the agreement, some U.S. troops will remain in Iraq's cities continuing to serve on as embedded trainers with Iraqi army and police units, and additional forces will continue to provide logistical assistance to Iraq's troops in the cities.
However, the bulk of U.S. troops will continue to operate in Iraq's rural areas and the belts surrounding urban areas in joint patrols with Iraqi security forces, much as they have since the security framework was put in place early this year.
Quick Reaction Forces will also be ready at U.S. bases outside the cities if needed to assist forces that might need help, but will enter the cities only if invited by Iraqi authorities.
In preparation for the withdrawal from the cities, the United States has closed or turned over to Iraqi authorities nearly 150 U.S. camps or facilities since the start of this year.
The remaining 310 U.S. facilities will be reduced in number over the next two years as the United States continues on the path of pulling all of its forces out of the country by Dec. 31, 2011, as required by the security agreement.
Camp Victory Will Remain Open in Western Baghdad
However, both the United States and Iraq agreed that large American bases inside Baghdad and Mosul, like the sprawling facility in western Baghdad known as Camp Victory, would be exempted from the agreement, given their large size and their importance to the overall security mission in Iraq.
The security framework was negotiated in the last months of the Bush administration and upon assuming office, President Barack Obama approved a troop withdrawal schedule from Iraq that will lead to the end of the combat mission by Aug. 31, 2010.
At that point a remaining force of 35,000 to 50,000 American forces in Iraq will continue to serve on as military trainers and advisers until the final pullout date by the end of 2011.
The troop drawdown in Iraq won't pick up momentum until next year because Odierno wants to have enough troops on hand to provide security for the all-important Iraqi national elections to be held this coming January.
There are 133,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, and will likely be 120,000 to 125,000 by year's end to provide security for the election.
After the election, the U.S. drawdown will begin in earnest. By August 2010, the number of troops is supposed to be cut by almost 70,000 to meet the reduced force level that will remain as trainers.
The accelerated drawdown next year will pose major logistical challenges for a military that has accumulated a large amount of equipment and facilities in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Though U.S. military leaders were confident of meeting the deadline as late as this April, senior military commanders, like Odierno, had expressed reservations about whether a pullout might be feasible from the restive northern city of Mosul, given the strong insurgency there that contributed to continuing high levels of violence.
But Odierno said this weekend that the decision to proceed was made easier by violence levels in May that were the "lowest level of incidents we've ever had on record in Iraq," a trend that has continued through June despite several high-profile attacks this past week.
He attributed the "slight uptick" in those attacks to "extremist elements that are attempting to bring attention to themselves."
Odierno added his belief that the attacks have turned the Iraqi population even further against insurgents, which will make it more difficult for them to operate in the future.