American and Iraqi officials announced on Wednesday that United States forces would hand over control of the Anbar Province, the scene of some of the war's most gruesome violence, to the Iraqi military as soon as next Monday. Most of the departing US soldiers are marines, many of whom will be sent to Afghanistan, where conflict has renewed between NATO forces and a resurgent Taliban.
The move out of Anbar and into Afghanistan appears to be as much a vote of confidence in Iraqi forces as it is an indication of US concerns about the war in Afghanistan.
"Anbar remains a dangerous place, but the ever growing ability of the Iraqi security forces continues to move us closer to seeing Iraqi control of the province," the general said.
He expressed the hope that the handover of the Anbar province to Iraqi control will allow the Pentagon to redeploy troops elsewhere.
"More US forces are needed in Afghanistan," he said. "However, in order to do more in Afghanistan, our marines have got to see relief elsewhere."...
"It's our view that if there is a stiffer fight going someplace else, in a much more expeditionary environment where the Marine air-ground task force really seems to have a true and enduring value, then that's where we need to be," he said about Afghanistan.
A transfer to Iraqi control was initially scheduled for June, but was postponed at the last minute amid worries about possible fighting between Anbar's rival Sunni factions, reports the Associated Press. For the last 18 months, many of those factions have come together to work with US forces and take on Al Qaeda in the form of Awakening Councils.
Ten of Iraq's 18 provinces have already been returned to Iraqi control. President Bush said in January 2007 that the goal was to have all 18 in Iraqi control by the end of 2007; currently there is no announced goal, although completing the process is a crucial step in phasing out the U.S. combat role in Iraq.
As recently as 2006, Anbar was the deadliest province in Iraq for American troops. Toward the end of that year, however, the Sunni Arabs who were leading the insurgency in Anbar decided to join hands with U.S. forces to jointly fight the extremist al-Qaida group, and violence levels plunged.
Now Anbar is one of the quietest parts of the country, with Iraqi security forces in the lead.
Anbar is the largest province in Iraq and the first one bordering Baghdad to be placed under Iraqi control. The New York Times reports that a Marine withdrawal would be "a milestone" for the Bush administration, which says it proves the success of its troop "surge" and its cooperation with the Awakening Councils.
But not everyone likes the Awakening Councils. Some consider them controversial because many of their members and leaders are former Sunni insurgents who once fought the US in Anbar. The New York Times adds that in the last several weeks, the movement has come under attack from the Shiite-led government of Nouri al Maliki, highlighting a rift within the country that could renew violence and complicate American ambitions for a full withdrawal.
The councils are credited with reducing crime and violence in Anbar, but have recently come under attack by the Iraqi Army, which is controlled by the Shiite government in Baghdad.
The government's campaign has been particularly pronounced lately in the area west of Baghdad, where the Iraqi Army has arrested scores of Awakening members. Former insurgent leaders have contended that the Iraqi military is pursuing 650 Awakening leaders, many of whom have fled.
The Los Angeles Times reports that only about 1,500 marines are expected to be withdrawn from Anbar, out of a total 25,000 stationed there. That "minimal" number is just enough to replace one unit, the 2nd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment, which will leave Afghanistan by November.
Reuters reports that no official estimate has yet been made of the number of marines to be withdrawn, although Gen. Conway told reporters "it was unlikely that fresh marine forces would be deployed to replace the 2,200 marines fighting Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan."
The relatively small size of the expected Anbar withdrawal underscores what some say is the over-stretching of the Marine Corps, reports Reuters.
[Conway] declined to recommend a specific troop number but said the corps ultimately would like to have 15,000 troops deployed worldwide. There are currently 34,000 Marines on worldwide deployment, only 5,600 of whom are deployed neither to Iraq nor Afghanistan.
U.S. defence officials have long recognized the need to redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan but no final decision has been made.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates and other top Pentagon officials are considering ways to increase the number of U.S. combat brigades in Afghanistan to confront the Taliban.
"Everyone seems to agree that additional forces are the ideal course of action for preventing a Taliban comeback, but just where they're going to come from is still up for discussion," Conway said at a Pentagon news conference. "It's no secret that the Marine corps would be proud to be part of that undertaking."