U.S. Forces to Hand Over Anbar Control to Iraqis in March, General Says

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Iraq's western province of Anbar, origin of the Sunni Arab insurgency that arose in the early months of U.S. occupation, will be returned to Iraqi control in March, a senior U.S. general said Thursday.

Thus far, nine Iraqi provinces have reverted to Iraqi control, most recently the southern province of Basra in December. The process has gone substantially slower than the Bush administration once hoped, mainly because of obstacles to developing sufficient Iraqi police and army forces.

Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, commander of the roughly 35,000 Marine and Army forces in Anbar, said levels of violence have dropped so significantly — coupled with the growth and development of Iraqi security forces in the province — that Anbar is ready to be handed back to the Iraqis.

He said in a telephone interview that a provincial security committee under Anbar's governor has been established and has rehearsed procedures for handling any security crisis that might develop.

Under a plan accepted by the Iraqi government as well as the top two American authorities in Iraq — Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus — the U.S. military will transfer control of Anbar to provincial authorities in March, followed by a ceremony in April, Gaskin said.

"We all agree that, based on the requirements, Anbar will be ready by that time," Gaskin said, speaking from his Multi-National Force West headquarters in Fallujah, about 25 west of Baghdad.

As recently as 18 months ago Anbar was the central stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq, the shadowy insurgent group that U.S. officials say is largely led by foreign terrorists but populated mainly by Iraqis.

What recently has developed into a broadbased backlash against al-Qaida among Iraq's Sunni Arab community began in Anbar in late 2006. Americans recruited Sunni sheiks to help oust al-Qaida from their home turf, and the movement spread to former militants who once fought U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.

Gaskin, who is scheduled to return to his home base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in February when he is replaced by Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly from Camp Pendleton, Calif., arrived in Anbar in February 2007. That was a turning point in the security situation in the provincial capital of Ramadi. The city is now largely pacified — a state of affairs that few would have predicted a year ago.

Referring to the decision to return all of Anbar to Iraqi provincial control in March, Gaskin, recalling the unsettled situation he faced when first arriving, said, "I didn't expect it to happen so fast."