RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) – The U.S. military handed over Iraq’s western Anbar province to Iraqi security forces on Monday, less than two years after the region was all but lost to a Sunni Arab insurgency.
“We are in the last ten yards of this terrible fight. The goal is very near,” Major-General John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, told U.S., Iraqi and tribal officials gathered near Anbar’s government headquarters.
“Your lives and the lives of your children depend on victory.”
Kelly and Anbar Governor Mamun Sami Rasheed embraced after signing a document making Anbar the 11th of Iraq’s 18 provinces, and the first Sunni Arab province, to be returned to Iraqi control since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
“We faced al Qaeda and we paid dearly for this our lives,” Rasheed said. “Blood is spread all over this great land.”
Police marched down a main street carrying Iraqi flags, followed by a parade of police vehicles trimmed with flowers.
The handover in Anbar had been slated for June but was delayed due to a row between local political leaders.
Lt. Colonel Chris Hughes, spokesman for U.S. Marines in western Iraq, said the handover was largely ceremonial since Iraqi forces had been working independently for several months.
Anbar, with little oil wealth but strategic importance from its borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, was once a haven for Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and the scene of fierce battles against U.S. forces and Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government.
Some of the bloodiest fights in more than five years of war have taken place in Anbar, including two devastating assaults by U.S. forces on the city of Falluja in 2004.
The first of those is thought to have killed hundreds of civilians and the second left many parts of the city in ruins.
Key parts of Anbar were once in the grip of al Qaeda.
“We would not have even imagined this in our wildest dreams three or four years ago,” Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told reporters before the ceremony.
“If we had said that we were going to hand over security responsibility from the foreign troops to civilian authority, people would laugh at us. Now I think it’s a reality.”
AWAKENING IN ANBAR
Things changed in Anbar in late 2006, when Sunni Arab tribal leaders fed up with al Qaeda’s harsh tactics and puritanical brand of Islam switched sides, helping the U.S. military to largely expel the group from the region.
Anbar’s ‘Awakening’ became a model for grassroots guard units across the country, which U.S. officials credited with helping sharply reduce violence across Iraq.
Some 382 Iraqi civilians were killed in August, Iraqi government figures showed, far below the more than 1,770 killed in August 2007.
Violence against U.S. troops has also dropped over the last year. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed in combat in Iraq in August, according to independent Web site www.icasualties.org, up from six in July. In August 2007, 56 U.S. troops and four British soldiers were killed.
But attacks continue in Baghdad and other restive areas.
Tensions have simmered in Anbar in recent months, too, between Awakening leaders, Iraqi government forces and local councilors lead by the Islamic Party. Some Awakening members fighters complain their members are not being incorporated into Iraqi security forces.
Memories are also fresh of bloody events in the town of Haditha in 2005, where U.S. Marines were accused of killing 24 Iraqi civilians. Of eight Marines originally charged, six have won dismissals and a seventh was acquitted at court martial. The accused ringleader still faces court martial.