WASHINGTON ï¿½ 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 ï¿½ coupled with the growth and development of Iraqi security forces in the province ï¿½ 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.
“Anbar province, once considered a stronghold of al-Qaida, has been reclaimed for the Iraqi people,” Gates said.
Under a plan accepted by the Iraqi government as well as the top two American authorities in Iraq, the U.S. military will transfer control of Anbar to provincial authorities in March, followed by a ceremony in April, Gaskin said.
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.