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 , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Different scene: A Fullujah resident rode last week near a bridge where in 2004 the bodies of slain Blackwater contractors had hung.
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    Back in business: Muhammad Hussein (r.) attends to customers at his kabob restaurant, a Fallujah landmark. Mr. Hussein laments the US military cooperating with people he says lack experience and integrity.
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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

Inside the city, walls that were once awash with praise for the insurgency and Al Qaeda are now freshly painted with colorful scenes and slogans like: "Knowledge is light and ignorance is darkness."

At the popular Al-Yarmouk music shop the latest CD of Iraqi artist Hussam al-Rassam with a song praising the chivalry of Anbaris is selling fast. This would have been tantamount to heresy when the city was, until recently, in the grips of Al Qaeda militants, says owner Riad Nouri. "We were told to sell only Koran recitals, sermons, and chants," he says.

Hajji Hussein's kabob restaurant, a local landmark, is back in business after having been demolished in 2004. US Marines coolly patrol on foot under the gaze of residents.

Inside, customers speak about the emerging dynamic in Fallujah and what the transfer of control really means.

"I am very content," says Hussam Ibrahim. "The Americans are much better now, in the past if you drove anywhere near them they would riddle you with bullets."

His friend, Faisal Jamal, disagrees. "I just do not understand what they are still doing here. They need to leave," he says.

Everyone becomes visibly angry as another man, who gives his name as Abu Haitham, recounts how he allegedly witnessed a US soldier beat a Fallujah resident at the city entrance on Wednesday. The same incident is later recounted by a local official.

Muhammad Hussein, the owner of Hajji Hussein's, asserts that the US has wasted plenty of money by cooperating with "men of questionable abilities and integrity."

"With all the money they have spent so far, they could have built a second Fallujah with marble roads and skyscrapers like Dubai," he says.

Inside the local government building, US Marines accompanied by interpreters nip casually in and out of the office of Mr. Abdullah, the city council member. As they leave the room, he ticks off a litany of US-funded projects that have been plagued with corruption and duplicity of effort.

He says a recent project in Numaniyah on the edge of Fallujah should have cost $500,000 but the US military awarded it to a contractor for $2.5 million.

Entire streets in Fallujah have been ripped up again after being fixed with US money because they did not know that the council was planning to carry out sewerage works under the same streets with Iraqi government funds.

"There are a lot of contradictions in our work … the Americans are spending money just to please sheikhs and local officials," says Abdullah.

The conversation is interrupted as his cell phone and those of other officials seated in the room begin to ring one after the other with calls bearing the grim news from Garmah.

"Fallujah is not perfect. We are fully aware of that, but the gains and progress are such now that the Iraqis will very soon be able to manage it on their own," says Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the US Marines, who are responsible for the city. He was unable to immediately comment on some of the issues raised by this article.

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