BAGHDAD – The U.S. military on Monday handed the Iraqi government responsibility for security in Anbar province, the former stronghold of the Sunni insurgency that has now become one of the safest areas in the country.
The transfer of authority took place as U.S. forces are hoping to shift many of the 25,000 Marines from Anbar to Afghanistan, which is seeing violence crest as security improves in Iraq.
U.S. officials viewed the transfer as a sign of the success of the American effort and the growing strength of Iraqi security forces.
“Today is a historic day in Anbar province,” said Khamis Atan, the province’s deputy governor. “This is a major step for full sovereignty in all of Iraq.”
But even as Iraqis celebrated the milestone, concerns lingered about a campaign by the Shiite-led central government to halt one of the key reasons Anbar has become safer: the Awakening Councils, groups of former Sunni insurgents who now cooperate with U.S. troops.
The Awakening movement had its start in Anbar and then spread across Iraq. More than 100,000 former Sunni insurgents are part of the group, each receiving about $300 a month from the U.S. government.
Shiite officials have attacked the movement as illegitimate and have recently issued more than 650 arrest warrants for people in areas west of Baghdad to shut the movement down.
Abu Zakaria, an Awakening leader, said the move by the Iraqi Army could destroy the security gains in the province.
“We don’t want to see al-Qaida come back but if this keeps happening we will be in serious danger of seeing an explosion of attacks,” he said.
In western Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib district, members of the Awakening have fled their homes and their posts to avoid capture. Residents said that violence has recently spiked and members of the Sunni insurgent group Al-Qaida in Iraq have returned.
“We demand the return of our Awakening brothers. If there are some criminals among them it is unfair to punish the good ones,” said Mohammed Riyadh, 53, a vendor on the main street of Abu Ghraib.
Col. Saadi al-Dulaimy, commander of an Iraqi Army battalion west of Baghdad, said most of the Awakening members were former members of Al-Qaida in Iraq with blood on their hands. Many had been involved in multiple murders and kidnappings. “Today they claim they are part of the Awakening just to escape punishment,” he said.
U.S. officials said they support the movement, which they call the Sons of Iraq program, and are trying to encourage the Iraqi government to incorporate them into the Iraqi Army and police as quickly as possible.