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US troops withdraw from Iraqi cities

Iraqi forces assumed formal control of Baghdad and other cities today after American troops handed over security in urban areas in a defining step toward ending the US combat role in the country.

A countdown clock broadcast on Iraqi TV ticked to zero as the Monday midnight deadline passed for US combat troops to finish their pullback to bases outside cities.

"The withdrawal of American troops is completed now from all cities after everything they sacrificed for the sake of security," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. "We are now celebrating the restoration of sovereignty."

The Pentagon did not offer any comment to mark the passing of the deadline.

Fireworks, not bombings, coloured the Baghdad skyline late yesterday, and thousands attended a party in a park where singers performed patriotic songs.

Loudspeakers at police stations and military checkpoints played recordings of similar tunes throughout the day, as Iraqi military vehicles decorated with flowers and national flags patrolled the capital.

"All of us are happy - Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds on this day," Waleed al-Bahadili said as he celebrated at the park. "The Americans harmed and insulted us too much."

Mr Al-Maliki declared a public holiday and proclaimed June 30 as National Sovereignty Day.

Midnight's handover to Iraqi forces filled many citizens with pride but also trepidation that government forces are not ready and that violence will rise.

Shiites fear more bombings by Sunni militants; Sunnis fear that the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces will give them little protection.

If the Iraqis can hold down violence in the coming months, it will show the country is finally on the road to stability.

If they fail, it will pose a challenge to President Barack Obama's pledge to end an unpopular war that has claimed the lives of more than 4,300 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.