Iraq willing to see US troops leave early
BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraq is willing to have the U.S. withdraw its troops and assume security for the country before the end of 2011, the departure date agreed to by former President George W. Bush, the Iraqi prime minister’s spokesman said.

Spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh made the comment Tuesday, a day before President Barack Obama and his senior commanders were to meet in Washington to discuss the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Obama promised during the campaign to withdraw all U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office. The new president said in his inaugural address Tuesday that he would "begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people."

Al-Dabbagh told Associated Press Television News that Iraqis had been worried about a quick U.S. departure.

But with the emphasis on a responsible withdrawal, al-Dabbagh said the Iraqi government was willing for the U.S. to leave "even before the end of 2011." The Bush administration agreed in November to remove all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.

U.S. commanders are concerned that a rapid departure would threaten the fragile security established since 2007 after years of military and political setbacks.

The war has left many Iraqis conflicted - anxious to see the Americans leave but fearful of the future if they depart too soon. Distrust of rival sectarian and ethnic groups still runs deep, along with doubts about Iraq’s political leadership.

Across this war-shattered country, many Iraqis watched the transfer of power in Washington on Arab satellite television stations. Many of them expressed hope that the departure of the president who launched the Iraq war in 2003 would speed the return of peace.

"I think that the U.S. image and policies will improve because Obama will try to avoid the awful mistakes committed by Bush," said Ripwar Karim, 26, a Kurdish merchant who watched the inauguration in a cafe in Sulaimaniyah.

Several others in the cafe cheered when Obama appeared on the TV screen but gave a "thumbs-down" sign when the camera honed in on Bush.

"Bush was as a nightmare on the chests of the Iraqis for the last eight years," said Ahmed Salih, an engineer in Fallujah. "Today we got rid of a problem that lasted eight years. Bush divided Iraq instead of uniting it. He proclaimed democracy but we haven’t seen it."

U.S. officials are carefully watching the Jan. 31 provincial elections as a sign of whether the country is moving sectarian and ethnic conflicts from the battlefield to the ballot box.

Violence is down sharply in Iraq but attacks still continue.

A roadside bomb exploded early Wednesday in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing one civilian and wounding another, police Col. Baldar Shukir said.

A blast late Tuesday killed an Iraqi soldier and wounded another, police in the capital said.

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