The Anbar Handover
Yesterday formal responsibility for security in Iraq’s western Anbar province was turned over to Iraqi forces:
Baghdad – The US military handed over control of Anbar Province Monday, marking a significant milestone in the Iraq war.
Anbar was the deadliest Iraqi province for US troops, with nearly 1 in every 3 Americans killed there. It was once the symbol of Sunni resistance, the base of operations for Al Qaeda, and home to two major US military offensives and the most intense urban combat of the war.
But in the past two years, Anbar has emerged as the symbol of a turnaround as Sunni sheikhs formed “Awakening Councils,” ousted Al Qaeda, and created community police forces.
As of this writing 11 of Iraq’s 18 provinces have been returned to Iraqi control. Formidable challenges lie ahead: the remaining seven provinces have Iraq’s greatest sectarian and ethnic diversity and include some of Iraq’s most populous.
Additionally, although the forces now responsible for the security of Anbar Province are nominally under the control of the national government, practically many are militias under the control of local sheikhs who in many cases haven’t been brought into the political process in Iraq and, indeed, may not recognize the legitimacy of the elected Sunni leadership.
The handover may set the stage for freeing up the Marines, until now responsible for security in the province, for redeployment to Afghanistan:
Gen. James T. Conway told Pentagon reporters the marked drop in violence in Anbar sets the stage for a drawdown of Marine forces that could be freed up for duty in Afghanistan, if needed.
“The change in the al-Anbar province is real and perceptible,” with attacks at an all-time daily low of two to three, Conway said. He cited assessments by Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of Multinational Force West, that a reduced U.S. force in the region could keep violence in check.
“Anbar remains a dangerous place, but the ever-growing ability of the Iraqi security forces continues to move us closer to seeing Iraqi control of the province,” he said.
A significant milestone.