United States to return control of Anbar province

? For much of the first five years of the Iraq war, the U.S. struggle to pacify the Anbar province seemed like a quixotic effort.

The western province was where U.S. forces saw some of the fiercest fighting since Vietnam, a place where more than 1,100 U.S. troops have been killed in action since the start of the war.

And with a largely Sunni population that was hostile to U.S. forces and the newly empowered Shiite government in Baghdad, Anbar looked as if it would be the toughest nut in Iraq to crack.

But on Wednesday, in a potent symbol of strides made in what was one of the most troublesome corners of Iraq, the U.S. Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, said that U.S. troops will turn over control of Anbar to the Iraqi security forces sometime next week. Conway suggested that the security situation has improved so much that it is time to shift the Marines’ presence from Iraq to Afghanistan.

As the Marines hand over control of security to the Iraqis and move toward shrinking their bootprint in Iraq, they will leave behind a once-hostile Sunni population that is now more empowered but still mistrusted by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated political apparatus in Baghdad.

The final decision on shifting future deployments of Marines – there now are 25,000 in Iraq – would be made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has expressed his desire to send more troops to Afghanistan as fewer are needed in Iraq. But it’s noteworthy that Conway’s statement comes just weeks before Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing top commander in Iraq, is expected to make recommendations to Gates for further troop cuts in Iraq.

Conway, who recently returned from a visit to Iraq, said Marines serving in the once violent province told him that the areas where U.S. troops once were regularly assaulted by gunfire and roadside bombs are these days largely quiet.

“There aren’t a whole heck of a lot of bad guys there left to fight,” Conway said the Marines told him.

The transfer of authority in Anbar has been expected for weeks but was delayed in part by the reluctance of top Iraqi security officials to see the Americans go.

Conway, who has long lobbied for Marines to shift their responsibility to Afghanistan, repeated Wednesday that reducing the Marines’ presence in Iraq would allow the service to play a part in bolstering the U.S. military and NATO’s effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where violence and coalition casualties have surpassed those in Iraq in recent months.