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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.

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What's more, bitter internal rivalries are simmering. And power struggles between the newly empowered tribal chieftains and political parties, such as the Islamic Party, risk becoming more violent, particularly in the run-up to provincial elections tentatively scheduled for October.

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The Islamic Party's Fallujah headquarters were rigged with five bombs earlier this month that blew off the roof.

"The situation is bad. Al Qaeda is waiting for any breach. We also do not know what America wants: will it hand us more powers or does it want to stay longer under the guise of something or another," says Muhammad Yassin, a local party official, standing in the midst of the remaining wreckage.

The handover of security basically means that Iraqis are supposed to be in the lead when it comes to planning and executing security operations. Iraqi troops will continue to be backed by US forces. The process has already taken place in nine of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Another handover was scheduled to take place Monday in the mainly Shiite
province of Qadisiyah, south of Baghdad, but the ceremony was cancelled due
to weather.

But here, even some of the local officials working closest with the Americans see the handover as mainly ceremonial.

"The handover is without substance, the true handover happens when they leave Iraq," says Sheikh Hamid al-Zobaie, a member of Fallujah's city council who hails from one of eastern Anbar's most prominent tribes.

"It is occupation pure and simple … and the government in Baghdad is sectarian. It does not represent us," says another council official, Khalid Abdullah.

The current number of US troops in Iraq stands at about 146,000, of which roughly 35,000 serve in Anbar. This is expected to dip to around 142,000 by mid-July as some of the units sent during the surge in early 2007 including two Anbar-based Marine battalions, numbering about 1,500, return home. The US military is scheduled to hand over to the Iraqis Camp Blue Diamond in Ramadi, the site of a palatial complex built by Saddam Hussein, but will retain other bases in Anbar like Camp Fallujah and the sprawling desert Al-Asad Airbase.

At the fortresslike entrance to Fallujah are signs that read "Keep Fallujah clean" and billboards that feature the photos of wanted militants. Masked policemen stand guard.

The US-backed police force here was created almost clandestinely in 2006. It is now headed by Col. Faisal Ismail al-Zobaie, an ex-insurgent, and maintains a tight grip on the city since it has been divided into nine gated sectors. While Fallujans speak with pride about their police, many bemoan its brutal tactics.

“People are more fearsome now of being arrested by the police than by the Americans,” says one resident who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. Many allege the police are responsible for carrying out
summary executions of suspects. The police chief and his deputy declined to be interviewed for this article.