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Iraq Declares Victory As U.S. Troops Leave Cities

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (file photo)

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (file photo)

BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraq's leader has declared victory as the country began to end a foreign occupation with the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from cities, and told Iraqis not to lose faith if the pullback resulted in attacks.

As part of a security pact signed between Baghdad and Washington last year, U.S. combat forces must leave urban centers by June 30 and the entire force that invaded Iraq in 2003 must be gone by 2012.

"It is a great victory for Iraqis that we are taking the first step toward ending the foreign presence in Iraq," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a conference of leaders from the ethnic-Turkish Turkoman community.

"I, and you, are sure that many don't want us to succeed and celebrate this victory. They are getting themselves ready to move in the dark to destabilize the situation, but we will be ready for them, God willing."

A series of devastating bomb attacks in April cast doubt on the ability of Iraqi security forces to take over from U.S. troops in protecting the population from mainly Sunni Islamist insurgents, including Al-Qaeda, and other violent groups.

But the bloodshed fell back again significantly in May, and June has also seen few large-scale attacks.

It is not clear if that is due to the efforts of Iraqi police and soldiers, or if it means that insurgent groups, beaten back over the past two years in most of Iraq, now lack the organization and support to keep up the momentum for long.

The sectarian bloodshed and insurgency unleashed by the invasion peaked in 2006-07, but volatile and ethnically mixed cities like Mosul and Baquba remain dangerous. Baghdad also continues to see a steady stream of bombings and shootings.

"Don't lose heart if a breach of security occurs here or there," Maliki said, reiterating a warning that insurgents were likely to try to take advantage of the U.S. pullback to launch more attacks.

Analysts warn there may also be a spike in violence ahead of parliamentary elections next January.

Maliki, a Shi'ite Muslim, called for national unity among Iraq's fractured groups but took the opportunity to take a stab at Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein and formed the core of the resistance to the U.S. invasion.

Many Sunnis mistrust Maliki and fear the prime minister is not overly interested in giving a fair slice of power to Sunnis, who repressed Iraq's majority Shi'a under Saddam.

"Those who spoke of the need to resist the occupation are today talking about the opposite, that the [foreign] forces should stay," Maliki said, referring to Sunni fears that without a U.S. presence they will be left unprotected.

"It is impossible for the multinational forces to stay. If we speak of keeping the foreign forces here, it means we have no confidence in ourselves, in our unity, in our brotherhood, and in the competence of our forces."