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US Tranfers Anbar Province to Iraqis Print E-mail

By Tim Butcher
September 1, 2008

ImageAn Iraqi province where over 1,000 American troops have been killed has been handed over to the control of local commanders.

In a significant success for American military planners following the "surge" in US forces in the country, Anbar became the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces, and the first Sunni-dominated one, to pass into the control of the government.

Once a key battleground in the bloody anti-American insurgency, it was deemed peaceful enough to be handed over by US commanders.

While US forces will remain in Anbar for the foreseeable future, their orders will be to stay in barracks unless called to reinforce operations by Iraqi troops.

Among Iraqi government officials there was a mood of celebration and pride at the modest handover ceremony in Ramadi.

"I would like to announce that the transfer from the US to Iraqi forces is done," said Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser.

But US officers were more sanguine. One described the transfer of security as an "important milestone ... but it does not necessarily mean that the security situation is stable or better".

He added: "It means the government and the provincial authorities are ready to take the responsibility for handling it."

The dramatic change comes after years when Anbar saw some of the worst post-Saddam violence in Iraq and became a symbol of America's weak control of the country.

Twice US forces launched largely unsuccessful attacks on the large city of Fallujah to try to drive out foreign fighters and supporters of al-Qaeda.

The cost was high with 1,305 US troops dying in Anbar, about a third of the entire American death toll in Iraq. It was in Anbar that roadside bombs were first used on a large scale to deadly effect against US convoys.

Estimates for the number of Iraqi civilian deaths vary considerably but one source, the independent website Iraqbodycount.org, gave the provincial civilian death toll as 6,000.

The breakthrough came with a change of tactics by American commanders in early 2007 following the appointment of General David Petraeus as head of coalition forces in Iraq.

Gen Petraeus's call for more US troops, the so-called surge, in troublesome areas such as Anbar coincided with a different strategy by US commanders on the ground.

They began to identify local tribal leaders who could be "turned" against al-Qaeda given the right financial and military support.

This, as much as the increased presence of US troops, made the difference with al-Qaeda insurgents, especially foreign fighters, driven out by local chieftains armed and backed by America.

Throughout late 2007 and the first half of 2008 the tactic saw a dramatic decrease in attacks by anti-American insurgents.

It did not come without a price.

Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha was one of the first local Sunni leaders to turn on al-Qaeda, but he was killed in a car bomb late last year.

Backed by US money, the Sunni tribal leaders formed "Awakening Councils", and began to take charge of security.

Anbar became a much less dangerous place, but the Awakening Councils remain a separate military and political force in the country.

The great unknown in the long term is how to reign in these well-armed Sunni groups to accept the rule of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

Gen Petraeus, who is due to step down soon, has said he will decide in the next few weeks whether to continue withdrawing troops and at what pace.

 

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