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U.S. hands over former Iraqi insurgent flashpoint
RAMADI, Iraq |
RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - The U.S. military handed over Iraq's Anbar province to Iraqi security forces on Monday, less than two years after it almost lost the western region to a Sunni Arab insurgency.
"We are in the last 10 yards of this terrible fight. The goal is very near," Major-General John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, told U.S., Iraqi and tribal officials.
"Your lives and the lives of your children depend on victory," he said in a ceremony in the provincial capital.
Kelly and Anbar Governor Mamun Sami Rasheed embraced after signing a document making Anbar the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces, and the first Sunni Arab one, to be returned to Iraqi control since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
"We faced al Qaeda and we paid dearly for this with our lives," Rasheed said. "Blood is spread over this great land."
Police marched down a main street carrying Iraqi flags, followed by a parade of police vehicles trimmed with flowers.
U.S. President George W. Bush praised the people of Anbar, scene of over a quarter of U.S. combat deaths in Iraq since 2003, for turning against al Qaeda's Sunni Islamist militants.
"Today, Anbar is no longer lost to al Qaeda -- it is al Qaeda that lost Anbar," he said in a statement.
Much of Anbar, with little oil wealth but strategic importance from its borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, was once in the grip of al Qaeda. The region witnessed fierce battles against U.S. forces and Iraq's Shi'ite-led government.
Some of the bloodiest fights in more than five years of war have taken place in Anbar, including two devastating assaults by U.S. forces on the city of Falluja in 2004.
"We would not have even imagined this in our wildest dreams three or four years ago," Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie told reporters before the ceremony.
"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. Now I think it's a reality."
AWAKENING IN ANBAR
The handover in Anbar had been slated for June, but was delayed due to a row between local political leaders.
Lt. Colonel Chris Hughes, spokesman for U.S. Marines in western Iraq, said the handover was largely ceremonial since Iraqi forces had been working independently for several months.
Things changed in Anbar in late 2006, when Sunni tribal leaders fed up with al Qaeda's harsh tactics and puritanical brand of Islam switched sides, helping the U.S. military to largely expel the group from the region.
The movement against al Qaeda was known as Anbar's "Awakening".
Still, tensions simmer in Anbar among Awakening leaders, Iraqi government forces and local councilors led by the Islamic Party. Some Awakening fighters complain their members are not being incorporated into Iraqi security forces.
The changes in Anbar became a model for grassroots guard units across the country, which U.S. officials credit with helping sharply reduce violence across Iraq.
Some 382 Iraqi civilians were killed in August, Iraqi government figures showed, far below the more than 1,770 killed in August 2007.
Violence against U.S. troops has also dropped over the last year. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed in combat in Iraq in August, according to independent Web site www.icasualties.org, up from six in July. In August 2007, 56 U.S. troops and four British soldiers were killed in combat.
SECURITY TALKS ONGOING
But attacks continue in restive areas as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, emboldened after success in battling Shi'ite militias this spring, presses the United States in bilateral talks for assurances on gradually limiting the U.S. troop presence here.
Baghdad and Washington say they are close to agreement on a new security pact that will govern the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq after a United Nations mandate expires at year's end.
Maliki said on state-run television that a draft of the deal would be sent to parliament for approval within 10 days.
Parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said U.S. and Iraqi negotiators were still struggling to find consensus on several contentious issues. The United States has long said it would not be held to an arbitrary timeline for withdrawing the approximately 145,000 troops it has stationed here.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Aws Qusay in Baghdad)
(Writing by Tim Cocks and Missy Ryan, editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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