Iraq's western province of Anbar, hotbed of the Sunni Arab insurgency for the first four years of the war, will be returned to Iraqi control in March, a senior U.S. general said Thursday.
In a telephone interview from Iraq, Marine Maj. Gen. Walter E. Gaskin, commander of the roughly 35,000 Marine and Army forces in Anbar, said levels of violence have dropped so significantly - coupled with the growth and development of Iraqi security forces in the province - that Anbar is ready to be handed back to the Iraqis.
Thus far, nine of 18 Iraqi provinces have reverted to Iraqi control, most recently the southern province of Basra in December. The process has gone substantially slower than the Bush administration once hoped, mainly because of obstacles to developing sufficient Iraqi police and army forces. But Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday that he expects the process to continue.
Gates also said he was encouraged by security gains achieved in Anbar and Baghdad in the year since President Bush ordered an extra 30,000 U.S. troops to those areas of Iraq in what became known as a "surge." Gates said it has created new promise for long-delayed political reconciliation.
"We clearly are hoping that the reconciliation and improvement in the political environment that has taken place at the local and provincial level over the past number of months will now meet further progress coming at the national level," Gates told a Pentagon news conference.
Gates ticked of a list of statistical indicators of recent security improvements in Iraq. He did not mention the plan to return Anbar to Iraqi control in March, but did say the province has seen a remarkable turnaround on the security front over the past year.
"Anbar province, once considered a stronghold of al-Qaida, has been reclaimed for the Iraqi people," Gates said.
Having been largely driven out of Anbar, insurgents shifted first to Baghdad and more recently to the northern provinces of Diyala and Ninewa.
Gaskin said that a provincial security committee under Anbar's governor has been established and has rehearsed procedures for handling any security crisis that might develop.
Under a plan accepted by the Iraqi government as well as the top two American authorities in Iraq - Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus - the U.S. military will transfer control of Anbar to provincial authorities in March, followed by a ceremony in April, Gaskin said.
"We all agree that, based on the requirements, Anbar will be ready by that time," Gaskin said, speaking from his Multi-National Force West headquarters in Fallujah, about 25 west of Baghdad.
The return of security control to Iraqi authorities in March does not mean U.S. troops will leave Anbar. Two Marine battalions, numbering roughly 1,500 troops, that were sent as part of the 2007 buildup are due to leave Anbar in about May, Gaskin said. But he would not forecast any additional cutbacks.
U.S. forces will remain in Anbar, for the time being, as partners with Iraq's army and police.
Nearly five years into the Iraq war, the demand for U.S. combat forces remains high. At his news conference, Gates cited the strain on the military as one factor as he weighs a proposal to send an additional 3,000 Marines to Afghanistan this spring to bolster NATO-led defenses against the Taliban.
"I have asked a number of questions that I expect to be answered before I make up my mind," Gates said. "I am concerned about relieving the pressure on our allies to fulfill their commitments. I am concerned about the implications for the force, and I also am very concerned that we continue to be successful in Afghanistan," and to keep the Taliban "on their back foot," Gates said.
Visiting Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi, appearing with Gates, also mentioned the turnaround in Anbar. He asserted that the situation has improved to the point where Iraqi forces are able to fight on their own, although that is a view not shared by U.S. commanders.
"I can say that the Anbar province, which was the hottest area of Iraq, does not now need any ( U.S.) forces because the (number) of the attacks is now zero for months now, the Iraqi minister said, speaking through an interpreter.
As recently as 18 months ago Anbar was the central stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq, the shadowy insurgent group that U.S. officials say is largely led by foreign terrorists but populated mainly by Iraqis.
What recently has developed into a broad-based backlash against al-Qaida among Iraq's Sunni Arab community began in Anbar in late 2006. Americans recruited Sunni sheiks to help oust al-Qaida from their home turf, and the movement spread to former militants who once fought U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
Gaskin, who is scheduled to return to his home base at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in February when he is replaced by Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly from Camp Pendleton, Calif., arrived in Anbar in February 2007. That was a turning point in the security situation in the provincial capital of Ramadi. The city is now largely pacified - a state of affairs that few would have predicted a year ago.
Referring to the decision to return all of Anbar to Iraqi provincial control in March, Gaskin, recalling the unsettled situation he faced when first arriving, said, "I didn't expect it to happen so fast." ( AP )