An official ceremony at a government building in Ramadi on Monday marked the official transfer of Anbar province from US to Iraqi forces. Anbar is the first Sunni province to be returned to Iraqi control since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Iraqi forces Monday took over control of Anbar, once the most explosive battlefield in Iraq, from the US military, symbolising the growing security gains in the war-torn country.
The ceremony to transfer Anbar to local forces took place at the provincial governate building in Ramadi, the provincial capital, marking the handover of the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Anbar is the first Sunni province to be returned to Baghdad's Shiite-led government.
"I would like to announce that the (Anbar) transfer from the US to Iraqi forces is done," said Muwaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security advisor at the handover ceremony.
Police said tens of thousands of Iraqi and US troops were on alert across the vast desert province in western Iraq, home to some two million people.
The US military said the transfer of security was an "important milestone... but does not necessarily mean that the security situation is stable or better."
"It means the government and the provincial authorities are ready to take the responsibility for handling it."
After the transfer, US forces will withdraw to their bases and will take part in military operations only if requested by the provincial governor.
Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the number two commander of US forces in Iraq, said the transfer "demonstrates the capability of the Iraqi forces."
"Together with the Iraqi forces, I am sure we will keep Al-Qaeda and all the insurgents from returning to Anbar province," he said during the handover, adding a warning that the jihadists were still not defeated.
Sunni Arabs in Anbar were the first to turn against US forces after the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime by US-led invasion forces in 2003, mounting a raging insurgency that tore through the world's most sophisticated military.
In the first years after the invasion, the country's biggest province became the theatre of a brutal war focused on the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, while a string of towns along the Euphrates valley became insurgent strongholds and later safe havens for Al-Qaeda.
Mamoon Sami Rashid, the governor of Anbar, said the security transfer was achieved after a "lot of sacrifices and shedding of blood."
"Al-Qaeda has committed some of the biggest massacres in this province. We have lost some big personalities... one of them was Abdul Sattar Abu Reesha," he said refering to the Sunni sheikh who launched the first anti-Qaeda Sahwa (Awakening) group in Anbar and was killed a year ago in a car bomb attack.
During the modest ceremony, US Marines gave a 10-inch (25-centimetre) knife in a wooden box with an American flag as a gift to the Iraqis while Sunni tribal flags and Iraqi flags were hoisted around the venue.
Around one third of US forces or 1,305 troops have been killed in Anbar which shares borders with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.
The most lethal threat to US troops, "improvised explosive devices" or makeshift bombs, first made their appearance in Anbar, causing more than 40 percent of American casualties between 2003 and 2006.
The brutal Al-Qaeda-led insurgency also killed around 6,000 civilians in the province, according to independent website Iraqbodycount.org.
The violence in Anbar began ebbing only after local Sunni Arab tribes -- weary of Al-Qaeda's extreme brutality -- revolted against the jihadists in September 2006 and sided with US forces.
Sunni tribes formed anti-Qaeda Sahwa groups and within a year the province became the safest in Iraq.
The US military currently has 28,000 soldiers in Anbar, down from 37,000 in February, according to US army figures, while the number of Iraqi soldiers and police has grown to 37,000 from just 5,000 three years ago.
Monday's handover is expected to help the US military cut its overall troop level in Iraq at a time when there is growing pressure to beef up forces in Afghanistan, where the level of violence is higher.
About 144,000 US soldiers are currently deployed in Iraq, but those numbers could decrease in coming months.
Date created : 2008-09-01