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U.S. forces to hand over hard-won Anbar Province

The Americans are set to transfer control of the once-restive Sunni province to Iraq, but many in Anbar question just how much real power the US is willing to relinquish.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 1, 2008

Different scene: A Fullujah resident rode last week near a bridge where in 2004 the bodies of slain Blackwater contractors had hung.

Sam Dagher

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This is a city literally rising from the ashes. While reminders of two major US assaults here in April and November 2004 are inescapable, signs of rebirth are plenty. Men in jumpsuits busily work on construction sites, sewers are being installed, and a hospital is nearly completed.

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Now, the US military is poised to return to Iraq control of this city and the rest of Anbar Province, once a haven for Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) fighters. In the past two years, a strategy of turning tribal leaders against AQI worked and led to a significant turnabout for the Americans.

But the danger, however, is not completely gone. On Thursday, an AQI-linked suicide bomber killed at least 20 people, including three US Marines, in the Anbar town of Garmah. And on the streets of Fallujah, doubts remain among both average Iraqis and some local officials about whether the US is really prepared to see Iraqis control Anbar.

A handover ceremony was supposed to have taken place Saturday in Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi. It was postponed because high winds and dust storms would have prevented top US and Iraqi officials from flying in from Baghdad, 70 miles away. The US military said Thursday's bombing did not cause the delay.

That attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al Qaeda-linked group, in a purported statement posted on the Internet. It said the victims, which included several tribal leaders and officials including Kamal al-Halbousi, a member of the Anbar provincial council, "sold their souls to the American devil for a cheap price."

Indeed, the strike on Garmah and others in Baghdad and the Sunni strongholds of Diyala and Nineveh provinces over the past week underscore the fragility of the situation and raise questions concerning the readiness of Iraqis to assume more security duties, particularly in places like Anbar, Diyala, and Nineveh, long associated with the Sunni Arab insurgency. The Garmah bomber was reportedly dressed as an Iraqi police commando.

The US has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on reconstruction in Anbar and on training, equipping, and funding local forces, including the tribal militias, who make up the anti-AQI forces known as the Awakening. In some instances, the American money has been used to buy the allegiances of powerful tribal sheikhs.

But Anbar remains as it has always been: fiercely clannish, nationalistic, and conservative. It's a place that is hostile to outsiders, be they Americans or foreign fighters. The American money spent here also does not appear to have helped much in reconciling this vast western province with Iraq's Shiite-led government in Baghdad.