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US blames sandstorm for Iraq handover delay

Latest update : 2008-06-29

The US military postponed turning over Anbar province - a key Sunni stronghold west of the capital Baghdad - to Iraqi forces due to a sandstorm fears only days after a bomb attack killed 20 people in nearby Garma.FRANCE 24's Lucas Menget reports.

BAGHDAD, June 27 (Reuters) - The handover of security
control in Iraq's Anbar province to Iraqi forces has been put on
hold, the U.S. military said on Friday, blaming a sandstorm
forecast to hit the region.

The sandstorm could have prevented officials flying to Anbar
for Saturday's handover ceremony, the U.S. military said.

Anbar, a vast region to the west of Baghdad, was once the
heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. forces and
Shi'ite-led governments in Baghdad.

It is set to be the first Sunni Arab region handed back to
Iraqi control, a sign of the remarkable turnaround in security
in the province since tribes there turned against al Qaeda.

Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Hughes, spokesman for the U.S.
Marines in western Iraq, said the delay was not linked to a bomb
attack in Anbar on Thursday. The attack killed 20 people,
including three U.S. Marines and two interpreters.

"Later this evening, we're expecting a brown-out. It's going
to be difficult to travel," Hughes said.

"We've lost so much out here, we don't want this (handover)
to go un-noticed," he said, referring to the hundreds of U.S.
Marines killed in the province since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Ahmed Abu Risha, the head of Iraq's U.S.-backed Awakening
Council, an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes fighting al Qaeda
militants, said Iraqi security forces took the decision to
postpone the handover because of the weather.

But he added that it would most likely have been delayed
anyway out of respect for the victims of Thursday's bombing in
Garma, 30 km (20 miles) west of Baghdad.

"This also is a reason for delaying: There will be all these
funerals in Anbar ... It is respectful not to hold ceremonies
while the funerals are still on," he said.

The U.S. military said its forces killed an al Qaeda
militant and detained another eight in operations in different
parts of the country on Thursday and Friday.

One of those arrested was suspected of links to an al Qaeda
cell in Anbar believed to be responsible for Thursday's bombing,
it said in a statement.


No new date has been set for the handover ofthe province,
but Hughes said he expected it would go ahead next week.

Security responsibilities are already being gradually
transferred to Iraqi forces anyway, he said. "It's not going to
change anything on the ground. It's very symbolic."

Anbar will be the 10th of Iraq's 18 provinces returned to
Iraqi security control since 2003, but the first Sunni Arab

In late 2006, Sunni Arab tribal leaders sick of al Qaeda's
indiscriminate killing of civilians and puritanical version of
Islam joined with the U.S. military to largely expel the group.

Violence fell sharply and that model for cooperation was
then exported to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.

Since then, al Qaeda has been increasingly squeezed into
Iraq's northern provinces, especially the city of Mosul,
considered the group's last major urban stronghold.

A car bomb in Mosul killed 18 people on Thursday.

Though very much weakened by a loss of popular support and
military operations against it, the Islamist group is still a
major threat and has the means to carry out lethal, large-scale
bombings, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

After Thursday's bombs, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi
called for an immediate review of Iraq's security procedures,
suggesting they were still insufficient to deal with threats.

"The Iraqi security situation is still fragile and it's
necessary to take security precautions to reduce casualties," he
said in a statement on Friday.

U.S.-led forces have so far transferred security control of
three Kurdish provinces in the north and six Shi'ite provinces
in the south, all areas which largely escaped the Sunni Arab
insurgency or bitter sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007.

In other violence, gunmen shot dead a leading Iraqi judge in
an ambush as he drove home in eastern Baghdad late on Thursday,
police said.

Kamel al-Shewaili, head of one of Baghdad's two appeals
courts, was the latest in a series of judges, academics and
other professionals to be targeted by militants.


Date created : 2008-06-28