Control of Anbar province handed over to Iraqi forces

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    US forces ceremonially handed control of Anbar province, scene of the bloodiest battles of the insurgency, to their Iraqi counterparts today, underlining the massive improvement achieved in security in recent months.



    Anbar, the first Sunni province to be returned to Iraqi rule, witnessed some of the fiercest fighting since the US-led invasion in 2003, notably during the two sieges of Fallujah in 2004 and 2005. Around a third of the 1,305 Americans troops who lost their lives in Iraq have died in Anbar.

    After the invasion, Fallujah and Ramadi, the provincial capital, quickly fell into the hands of Sunni groups allied to al-Qaeda. For years residents lived amid brutal street battles between American troops and the insurgents.

    President Bush hailed today’s ceremony in Ramadi as a victory against al-Qaeda. “Today, Anbar is no longer lost to al Qaeda- it is al-Qaeda that lost Anbar,” he said.

    The handover is a significant milestone in American efforts to withdraw their troops from the country: 11 out of Iraq’s 18 provinces have now been returned to Iraqi control since the US-led invasion that overthrew President Saddam Hussein.

    Major General John Kelly, the commander of US forces in Anbar, told officials gathered for the handover that they were “in the last ten yards of this terrible fight.” He said: “The goal is very near. Your lives and the lives of your children depend on this victory.”

    His sentiment was echoed by Mamun Sami Rasheed, the governor of Anbar, who said: “We faced al-Qaeda and we paid dearly for this with our lives. Blood is spread over this great land.” Mr Rasheed embraced General Kelly and the two signed a document to mark the event.

    American efforts to stabilise the province reached an all time low in 2004 when four American contractors where murdered, their bodies burnt, and their charred remains dragged through the streets of Fallujah by a cheering mob.

    The handover has twice been postponed, once in June due a sandstorm and once in July, because of political infighting in Baghdad. However, not even the delay could mask the stunning turn around in the province's fortunes.

    Much of the improvement is attributed to Sunni tribal elders switching allegiances from al-Qaeda to the Americans and the Iraqi government, in a movement that became known as the Anbar Awakening.

    “We would not have even imagined this in our wildest dreams three or four years ago,” Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, the Iraqi national security adviser, 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.”

    The move has also been welcomed by many locals. Abdullah Al-Jenabi, 31, a teacher on the outskirts of Ramadi, told The Times that “of course it is good.” of al-Qaeda forces operating in their area and the strict Islam they tried to impose. They switched sides in late 2006, thus denying al-Qaeda a strategic support base.

    The tribal leaders, many of whom had previously fought against their new allies, were often given payment and advice by US forces. It turned out to be a masterstroke, as their local knoweledge proved to be invaluable in hunting down, capturing and killing al-Qaeda militants.

    Despite the handover American troops will not immediately pull out of the province. US troop numbers, now at 28,000 — and down from 37,000 in February — will continue to be scaled back slowly whilst Iraqi troops are boosted. There are currently 37,000 troops in the province, up from 5,000 three years ago.

    American forces will also pull back from the main towns and will remain on stand-by for emergencies, though they will continue to advise and train the Iraqi police and army.

    Major General Kelly insisted that there would be no dramatic reductions. He said: “The Marine force ill be smaller soon. I don’t think it will be overnight. I think it will happen incrementally
     

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