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U.S. hands over Anbar, Iraq's once-deadliest region

Anbar Province is where 1 of every 3 US fatalities in Iraq occurred.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 2, 2008

Premature: Sheikh Ali al-Hatem says the Anbar handover happened before the region was ready. Al Qaeda remains a threat, he says.

Tom A. Peter/The Christian Science Monitor

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Baghdad

The US military handed over control of Anbar Province Monday, marking a significant milestone in the Iraq war.

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Anbar was the deadliest Iraqi province for US troops, with nearly 1 in every 3 Americans killed there. It was once the symbol of Sunni resistance, the base of operations for Al Qaeda, and home to two major US military offensives and the most intense urban combat of the war.

But in the past two years, Anbar has emerged as the symbol of a turnaround as Sunni sheikhs formed "Awakening Councils," ousted Al Qaeda, and created community police forces.

Anbar is the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces to return to Iraqi control, but it is the first predominately Sunni province handed over.

While most praise the transition, some Iraqis are concerned that corrupt police and Al Qaeda remain a threat. "Now the major challenge is how to build on the victories and maintain the situation," says Sheikh Ali al-Hatem, one of the founders of the Awakening movement in Anbar. However, he is critical of the hand-over, saying that Iraqi and American politicians made a rushed decision. "The threat of Al Qaeda has not ended in Anbar," he says.

Backgammon until 1 a.m.

For Hikmat al-Gaaod, mayor of Hit, a town with about 150,000 residents, the handoff comes at just the right moment. Located on the banks of the Euphrates River, insurgents used to traffic personnel, weapons, and supplies through Hit. But today, restaurants along the waterfront stay open late and many residents remain out until 1:00 a.m. socializing and playing backgammon.

A year ago, "the terrorists controlled this town," says Mr. Gaaod. They used to finance their operations by extorting money from local businesses, "but right now nobody can speak with anyone about donations [bribes] because we have the police, the Army, and intelligence. The people are not afraid of the terrorists anymore," he says.

Since early 2007, the number of Iraqi police in Anbar has grown from 11,000 to 23,000. During that same time period, the number of Iraqi troops based in Anbar grew from 8,300 to 24,000, say US officials. Since February, 9,000 US servicemen have left Anbar, leaving 28,000. The boom in security forces combined with shrinking local support for terrorist activity has made it difficult for Al Qaeda to operate in Anbar and the rest of Iraq.

"Because of the operational tempo [of Iraqi and US forces], Al Qaeda doesn't have a main operating area where they can regroup, plan, or resupply," says a senior US military official. "So you've got this group of terrorists who don't have the capacity to do the careful planning, build up large stock piles of weapons, so when they do go in it's much less frequent and at times somewhat less deadly."

Officials concede that Al Qaeda and other groups are still a threat capable of carrying out high profile attacks. Two weeks ago in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, a suicide car bomber killed five policemen and wounded seven others when he detonated himself at a police checkpoint.

Despite persistent attacks such as these, many Anbar residents who fled during the peak of fighting have returned.

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