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

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

Tom A. Peter/The Christian Science Monitor
Premature: Sheikh Ali al-Hatem says the Anbar handover happened before the region was ready. Al Qaeda remains a threat, he says.

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

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.

In 2005, Sheikh Fawzi Ftikhan fled to Syria after militants threatened his life for acting as a negotiator between American and Anbar officials. After hearing about security gains, he returned in 2007. But Sheikh Ftikhan is struggling to rebuild his contracting business after selling all his trucks to finance his flight out of Iraq. He spent his entire savings in Syria.

Starting over in Anbar

"I'm starting from the beginning," says Ftikhan. Security must continue to improve for his business to improve, he adds. He worries that "the police have been infiltrated by Al Qaeda, [and] if the Americans leave I can't guarantee that the situation will get better."

Ftikhan's concerns about the police represent what many Iraqis say is one of the biggest issues facing the Anbar Province after the handover.

"Many of the Al Qaeda operatives have just changed into a police uniform," says an Iraqi police colonel in Ramadi who has policed Iraq for 23 years. "Maybe they will go back to killing people if the situation changes."

Many of Anbar's police units were formed without thorough background checks, so a number of former criminals are now police officers, says the colonel. Additionally, some members of the Awakening Council were also incorporated into the police without screening and some high-ranking officers are illiterate or otherwise unqualified.

Resolving this issue is not as easy as just firing corrupt or unqualified officials, because many would simply return to their nefarious roots, says the colonel. New jobs must be created in order to prevent new problems from arising, he says.

Even if officials fix the problems within the police department, the legacy of the insurgency and the deprivations of the Saddam Hussein era will be felt for years.

"There's been a lot of social decay in the province," says William Rosenau, a counterinsurgency expert at RAND Corporation, a US think tank, who advised US Marines in the Anbar Province. "The social norms that kept people on track have eroded in a lot of ways and it's more legitimate now than it was in the past to engage in crime."

Before the US invasion, the province was struggling with a growing criminal culture. Loyal to Saddam Hussein, the Baathist region enjoyed a number of handouts from the former leader, creating what Mr. Rosenau describes as a "welfare state." But after the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88) consumed much of the government's money, the patronage programs began to shrink. Some residents turned to crime.

Now, says Rosenau, the remaining insurgents have grown accustomed to sustaining themselves through crime and many may have temporarily moved their political wings underground, while maintaining active criminal elements.

"Al Qaeda will not appear wearing masks in the streets again," says the Iraqi police colonel. "They will appear as policemen, politicians, and soldiers. They will create cells within these organizations and they will reappear after they handover."

The Shiite-dominated central government has expressed concerns about the US-funded Awakening movement becoming a separate military force. It is taking steps to incorporate some of the men into the federal security forces.

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