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US to hand key zone over to Iraqi forces

Latest update : 2008-08-28

The US has agreed to hand over control of Anbar province, Iraq's largest and scene of some of the heaviest fighting since the US-led invasion in 2003, to Iraqi forces as of Sept. 1.

The US military will transfer security control of Anbar province, scene of some of its bloodiest battles since the 2003 invasion, to Iraqi forces on September 1, the provincial police chief told AFP on Thursday.
"September 1 is the official date for the transfer of the security file of Anbar from US forces to the Iraqi military command," Tareq al-Dulaimi said.
"We've been ready for several months, and our forces are completely ready to take over responsibility," the police chief said.
The announcement came after US Marine General James Conways said on Wednesday that Iraqi security forces were now ready to take over responsibility for the province -- Iraq's largest and a former bastion of Sunni Arab insurgents.
"The change in the Al-Anbar province is real and perceptible," Conway said in Washington.
Anbar will be the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed over by the US-led coalition, which currently has 25,000 soldiers there, a reduction from 37,000 in February, according to US army figures.
The number of Iraqi soldiers has grown to 37,000 from just 5,000 three years ago.
The once-restive province west of Baghdad is home to the former flashpoint cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, where deadly clashes between insurgents and US troops flared repeatedly after the invasion.
Much of the success in restoring stability to the province is down to Sunni tribesmen and former rebels who in late 2006 formed groups called "Sahwa" or Awakening Councils to fight Al-Qaeda jihadists.
Within a year, they made the province one of the safest in Iraq and the Fallujah council of Sunni sheikhs has long spearheaded moves to take charge of security.
The American military had planned to transfer control in Anbar on June 28 but cancelled the previous day -- citing a sandstorm as the reason.
Anbar is the first predominantly Sunni Arab province to be returned to Iraqi control. Of the 10 already handed over, three are Kurdish and seven Shiite.
Although Anbar is considered realtively safe, 30 people were killed in a  suicide bombing on Monday at a banquet attended by police and Awakening Council members in Al-Zaidan, in the east of the province just outside Baghdad.
The drop in violence in Iraq comes amid growing pressure to beef up the US troop presence in Afghanistan, where the level of violence is higher.
About 144,000 US soldiers are currently on the ground in Iraq, but those numbers could decrease in coming months.
General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, has said he will decide in the coming days or weeks whether to continue withdrawing troops from Iraq, and at what pace.
This week, Iraqi officials said Washington and Baghdad have agreed there will be no foreign forces in Iraq after 2011, setting a timeline for a US withdrawal.
Under the 27-point deal, American combat troops would be pulled out of Iraqi cities by next June ahead of a full withdrawal by 2011, although the White House has insisted that no agreement has yet been finalised.

Date created : 2008-08-28