Published on
The Independent/UK

US Hands Control of Anbar Province To Iraqi Military

Patrick Cockburn

In this handout photo released by the US military, US Marines clear an abandoned house in Anbar province in June. Iraqi forces have taken over control of Anbar, once the most explosive battlefield in Iraq, from the US military. Despite claims of success, the US will keep 25,000 troops in Anbar, though they will concentrate on training Iraqi security forces rather than patrolling. (AFP/USMC-HO/File/Tyler W. Hill)

The US military handed over security control of the province of
Anbar to Iraqi government forces yesterday, claiming victory over
al-Qa'ida in Iraq. President George Bush hailed the deal as a
breakthrough. "Today, Anbar is no longer lost to al-Qa'ida, it is
al-Qa'ida that lost Anbar," he said

was once the heartland of the Sunni Arab uprising against the US
occupation . The insurgency took place largely in the towns and cities
along the upper Euphrates valley as it crosses the vast desert province
of western Iraq. Some 1,305 of the 4,150 American soldiers killed in
Iraq since 2003 died in Anbar, which provided many of the soldiers and
security men to Saddam Hussein's regime. The situation shifted in 2006
when Sunni tribal leaders forming al-Sahwa, or "awakening councils"
turned their backs on al-Qa'ida and began siding with the Americans.

war is not quite over, but it's being won and primarily by the people
of Anbar. Al-Qa'ida has not been entirely defeated, but their end is
near and they know it," said Marine Major General John Kelly, the
senior American commander in Anbar, during the handover ceremony.
"Wewould not have imagined this in our wildest dreams three or fours
years ago," added the Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffaq

"If we had said we were going to hand over security
responsibility from the foreign troops to civilian authority, people
would laugh at us. Now I think it is a reality."

Despite those
claims of success, the US will keep 25,000 troops in Anbar, though they
will concentrate on training Iraqi security forces rather than

The danger now is that the Iraqi government, which is
dominated by Shia parties allied to the Kurds, will try to establish
hegemony over the Sunni of Anbar. That would almost certainly provoke a
Sunni backlash against government control.Al-Sahwa leaders have made no
secret of their hostility to the government of Nouri al-Maliki, though
they still want jobs in the state security forces.

Mr Maliki is
now very sure he is firmly in control of Iraq and is less dependent
than ever before on his US ally. He has therefore resisted signing a
new security agreement with the US until it contains dates for a US
withdrawal and limits immunity for US troops. Mr Maliki told state
television he would send the new agreement to the Iraqi parliament to
be ratified in the next 10 days.

Mr Maliki's critics among the
Americans and Kurds say that he is over-confident and the Iraqi army's
successes in taking over Basra, Sadr City and Amara province from the
Mahdi Army between March and May only took place because of US military
support. Nobody quite knows how the half-million strong Iraqi security
forces would perform on their own.

The overall level of violence
in Iraq is down, with the Iraqi government saying 382 Iraqi civilians
were killed in August 2008 compared to 1,770 in the same month a year
ago. Only 11 US soldiers were killed in combat in August compared to 56
a year earlier.

But the divisions between the Shia, Sunni and the
Kurds in Iraq remain very deep. The revolt by tribal sheikhs in Anbar
in 2006 took place partly as a reaction to the savage cruelty of
al-Qa'ida against all who did not support it. But it was also motivated
by a fear among the Sunni, 20 per cent of the Iraqi population, that
the Shia, 60 per cent of Iraqis, were taking over the state.

Shia also largely won the battle for Baghdad which raged in 2005-07.
Many of the 2.4 million refugees in Syria and Jordan are Sunni who fled
at that time.

It is unclear how far Iraqi government forces will
really take over Anbar or how far they will be willing to take on
boardal-Sahwa. So far the signs are ominous. The Iraqi government has
produced a list of 650al-Sahwa members it wants to arrest including
such men as Abu Marouf, who led 13,000 men in the Fallujah area. It
does not intend to share power with them.

There are already
signs of that. The entrance to Baghdad from Anbar province to the west
is through Abu Ghraib. That is held by the al-Muthana brigade which is
recruited from the militant Shia Baghdad district ofal-Shu'ala. Sunni
hold this unit in such dread that they say they dare not try to pass
its checkpoints even to go to hospital in Baghdad. Instead they have to
make do with a dirty and ill-equipped hospital in Falluja.

the past, the turnover of security control by the US to Iraqi forces
has often been nominal. American troops continued to conduct operations
without consulting Iraqi commanders. The Iraqi army was supposedly in
charge of Kerbala province south of Baghdad, but US troops still
carried out an operation on their own authority earlier this year.


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