U.S. Forces to Hand Over Anbar Province to Iraqis

U.S. forces will hand over control of Anbar province to Iraqi troops in the coming days, military officials said Wednesday, touting improved security in the region.

"We believe the province could turn over to Iraqi control in just a few days," Marine General James Conway said.

"The change in the Al-Anbar province is real and perceptible," Conway said of the majority-Sunni region, which is Iraq's largest province.

"Anbar remains a dangerous place, but the ever growing ability of the Iraqi security forces continues to move us closer to seeing Iraqi control of the province," the general said.

He expressed the hope that the handover of the Anbar province to Iraqi control will allow the Pentagon to redeploy troops elsewhere.

"More U.S. forces are needed in Afghanistan," he said. "However, in order to do more in Afghanistan, our Marines have got to see relief elsewhere."

"They are doing a very good job of this nation-building business," in Anbar, but "25,000 Marines in the province are probably being in excess of the need, especially after Iraqi provincial control assumes responsibilities for security," Conway added.

"It's our view that if there is a stiffer fight going someplace else, in a much more expeditionary environment where the Marine air-ground task force really seems to have a true and enduring value, then that's where we need to be," he said about Afghanistan.

The once-restive Anbar province in western Iraq is home to former flashpoint cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, where deadly clashes between insurgents and U.S. forces often roiled after the 2003 invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

Unrest began to taper off in late 2006 as tribal leaders joined with U.S. forces to help oust Al-Qaeda nests in their midst.

The drop in violence comes amid growing pressure to beef up the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, where the level of violence is higher.

About 145,000 U.S. soldiers are currently on the ground in Iraq, but those numbers could decrease in coming months.

General David Petraeus, the top U.S. 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.

Meanwhile, violence continued elsewhere in Iraq. Most recently, a suicide bomber thwarted a security check at a police recruiting center in Jalawla, 150 kilometers (90 miles) north of Baghdad Tuesday, killing himself and at least 25 others, police said.

Jalawla is in Diyala province, considered to be one of the most dangerous in Iraq, and sees regular attacks by Al-Qaeda-linked groups targeting "Awakening" units of Sunni former jihadists who now are cooperating with the American military.

Wednesday's announcement of the impending handover of Anbar was seen in the United States as a political boon to the administration of President George W. Bush and his hopeful Republican successor in November's election, John McCain.

Success in Iraq was likely to be a major theme when the Republicans next week hold their convention to nominate McCain as the party's candidate for the White House.

Democrat Barack Obama, who has demanded an end to the war and a rapid pullback of U.S. combat troops, could suffer politically if vehement anti-war sentiment diminishes, pundits say.

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 U.S. withdrawal from the war-torn country.

Under the 27-point deal, all American combat troops will be withdrawn by 2011 and from Iraqi cities by next June, negotiator Mohammed al-Haj Hammoud said in Baghdad.

The White House has stressed that there is no final accord with Baghdad on the controversial troop withdrawal issue.

"These discussions continue, as we have not yet finalized an agreement," spokesman Tony Fratto said on Monday.

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