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Monday, September 1, 2008

Iraqis take back control of key Anbar province

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military has transferred security responsibility for the largest province in Iraq.

On Sept. 1, the U.S. military relayed security responsibility for the Anbar province, located along the borders with Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. They said Anbar, the 11th province handed over by the U.S.-led coalition, has been deemed stable and ready for direct Iraqi security control.

"We are in the last 10 yards of this terrible fight," Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, said. "The goal is very near."

Officials said U.S. troops in Anbar have declined from 37,000 in February 2008 to 25,000 today. At the same time, Iraqi security forces have risen to 28,000, an increase of nearly six-fold since 2005, Middle East Newsline reported.

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Anbar had long been the leading stronghold of Al Qaida. In June 2008, the U.S. military delayed formal transfer of security responsibility amid a dispute among Sunni tribes.

"If we had said that we were going to hand over security responsibility from the foreign troops to civilian authority, people would laugh at us," Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffaq Al Rubaie said. "Now I think it's a reality."

Officials said the U.S. military would retain most of its troops in Anbar through early 2009. They said Iraqi security forces in the province would continue to require significant help against Al Qaida.

On Aug. 30, the U.S. military transferred a camp that contained thousands of Iranian opposition forces and their families to the Baghdad government. The Ashraf camp contained members of the Mujahadin Khalq, deemed a terrorist organization by the State Department.

Despite numerous operations, Al Qaida was said to remain active in Anbar and other Iraqi provinces. On Aug. 30, 26 Al Qaida suspects, including a commander, were captured in northern Iraq.

"There are no safe havens in Iraq for AQI [Al Qaida in Iraq]," U.S. Col. Jerry O'Hara, a military spokesman, said. "Every cell taken down degrades their capability and saves Iraqi lives."

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