The US military handed control of Anbar, once the most explosive battlefield in Iraq, over to Iraq forces today. The move symbolises the growing security gains in the war-torn country. The ceremony to transfer Anbar to local forces took place at the provincial governate building in Ramadi, the provincial capital. It marks the handover of the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces and the first Sunni province to be returned to the control of the Iraqi government.
"I would like to announce that the (Anbar) transfer from the US to Iraqi forces is done," said Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser at the handover ceremony. "The province of Anbar which was one of the hottest regions in Iraq is today celebrating the receiving of the security file." Police said tens of thousands of Iraqi and US troops were on alert across the vast desert province in western Iraq.
Majid al-Assafi, the provincial police chief, said yesterday that his forces were ready to accept security responsibility in Anbar, the country's largest province and home to about two million people. The US military said the transfer of security was an "important milestone with regard to security" in the province. But the "transferring of security does not necessarily mean that the security situation is stable or better," the military statement said.
"It means the government and the provincial authorities are ready to take the responsibility for handling it." Martin Post, a top US commander in Anbar, said there would be some incidents but they "will be part of the normal life." "Iraqi police have better intelligence than ours. They have more abilities than us to do the job," he added. After the transfer, US forces will withdraw to their bases and will take part in military operations only if requested by the provincial governor.
Ahead of the handover, police tightened security and the US military stepped up patrols on the main streets of the provincial capital Ramadi, as locals prepared for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Iraqi Sunnis began observing Ramadan today. Shiites are to follow on Tuesday. Sunni Arabs in Anbar were the first to turn against US forces after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime by US-led invasion forces in 2003, mounting a raging insurgency that tore through the world's most sophisticated military.
In the first years after the invasion, the country's biggest province became the theatre of a brutal war focused on the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, while a string of towns along the Euphrates valley became insurgent strongholds and later safe havens for al Qa'eda. The US military currently has 28,000 soldiers in Anbar, down from 37,000 in February, according to US army figures, while the number of Iraqi soldiers and police has grown to 37,000 from just 5,000 three years ago.
The military had planned to hand over Anbar on June 28 but cancelled the previous day citing a sandstorm as the reason. Local chiefs said the delay was due to Sunni political disputes between Sahwa and the leading Sunni political group Islamic Party. Today's handover is expected to help the US military cut its overall troop level in Iraq at a time when there is growing pressure to beef up forces in Afghanistan, where the level of violence is higher.
About 144,000 US soldiers are currently deployed in Iraq, but those numbers could decrease in coming months. Gen David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, has said he will decide in the coming days or weeks whether to continue withdrawing troops, and at what pace. * AFP