WASHINGTON – When Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly deployed to Iraq in February, the violence had fallen so low in Anbar province that he began figuring out how to start closing bases and prepare to go home.
In the last 10 months the Marines in Fallujah have done what was unthinkable before the surge began — they have quietly transferred out of one of Anbar province's largest cities. FOX News has learned in an exclusive interview with Kelly from Fallujah that 80 percent of the move is complete. In February there were 8,000 Marines living at Fallujah base. Now there are about 3,000 left. By Nov. 14 there will be none.
"We will shut down the command function here and I will move; my staff has already started to move," Kelly, the commander of Multinational Force-West, told FOX News in an exclusive interview via satellite. "We will turn the lights off here."
They will hand the Fallujah base over to their Iraqi counterparts on Nov. 14, having relocated themselves and thousands of combat vehicles to the desert base of Al Asad to the west. Marines will no longer be seen in city centers such as Fallujah — a major step toward leaving Iraq, and one step closer to Iraq's goal of having U.S. troops out of its population centers by mid-2009 — one of the key points enshrined in the Status of Forces Agreement being reviewed on Capitol Hill today.
On Wednesday, to little fanfare, the Marines quietly closed down Al Qaim base near the Syrian border. Now it is run by Iraqis.
In Fallujah, where the U.S. Marines once had three large mess halls to feed troops, they are now down to one. The Marines have quietly disassembled the entire infrastructure of the base.
"We probably had several thousand of those large metal containers — tractor-trailer containers," Kelly said. "I bet we don't have 200 of them here now."
Of the thousands of vehicles once parked at the base, now there are only 300 left. Their transfer occurred at night, between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., over the past 10 months so as not to disturb Iraqi drivers and clog the roads.
They dubbed it "Operation Rudy Giuliani" because they were cleaning the streets up and returning Fallujah to normalcy — taking down barbed wire and tearing down checkpoints and Jersey walls that made Anbar look like a war zone.
"There is almost no barbed wire left anywhere in Fallujah," Kelly said. An Iraqi no longer sees barbed wire when traveling in and around the city.
Between 300 and 400 concrete barriers that divided the city were removed by Navy Seabees.
One of the big changes Kelly made when he took command in Anbar was to remove fixed checkpoints, and Iraqi vehicles no longer had to pull off to the side when a military convoy was on the road. His troops risked car bombs, but the gamble paid off in what had once been Iraq's most dangerous province. The new road rules instantly lowered the tension between military and locals. Soon he transitioned to moving military convoys only at night, so they would not encounter locals. This also stymied many of the insurgents laying IEDs or roadside bombs, which they often had done at night.
Another change for the better since Kelly arrived in February: He pushed the central government to provide more fuel to the people of Anbar, so the mostly Sunni population is now happier. In February, Anbaris were receiving only 8 percent of their allocation of fuel from the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Now it's 90 percent — eliminating one of their main gripes.
But perhaps the biggest sign that the situation has changed for the better for Sunnis living in Anbar: With the help of the Marines and the Iraqi police, nearly 100 percent of the eligible voting population were registered a month ago to vote in upcoming provincial elections.
"They seem to add another political party every day," Kelly said. "We didn't have a single security violation of any kind. They're at least going to give the electoral process a shot … at least going to give democracy a chance."
The Sunnis, who fueled a large part of Iraq's insurgency, boycotted the last election for Parliament with only 3 percent of Sunnis participating. Now they feel they have a stake in the government.
"This is an amazing indicator as to where this province is," Kelly said.
He and the Marines no longer use violence as an indicator of how much progress they have made. Two years ago they had 400 attacks — roadside bombs or shootings — at U.S. forces every week. In February it was down to 30 attacks per week. Now it is down to under 12 attacks per week. There hasn't been a Marine death in a few months.
Troop numbers have dropped, as well — down by 40 percent since February. About 26,000 Marines still serve in Anbar.
"In Anbar there is no longer an insurgency," Kelly said. "Unless someone does something stupid (for instance, if the Coalition were to accidentally kill a large number of civilians), this place will not go back to the way it was."
In football terms, Kelly says, the Marines are "in the last 10 yards of this fight."
"Could it go back? I don't think so," he said firmly. "We are winning this thing."