BAGHDAD The handover of security control in Iraq's Anbar province to Iraqi forces has been put on hold, the U.S. military said on Friday, blaming a sandstorm forecast to hit the region.
The sandstorm could have prevented officials flying to Anbar for Saturday's handover ceremony, the U.S. military said, explaining the delay.
Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Hughes, spokesman for the U.S. Marines in western Iraq, said the move was not linked to a bomb attack in the vast desert region on Thursday. That attack killed 20 people, including three U.S. Marines and two interpreters, police and the U.S. military said.
"There's really no connection. The wheels were already in motion to push this back (because of the weather)," Hughes said.
No new date has been set for the handover, but Hughes said security responsibilities were, in fact, already being gradually transferred to Iraqi forces.
"It's not going to change anything on the ground. It's very symbolic," he said.
Anbar will be the 10th of Iraq's 18 provinces returned to Iraqi security control since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but it will be the first Sunni Arab region handed back.
Anbar was once the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. forces and successive Shi'ite-led administrations in Baghdad following the downfall of Saddam Hussein. It was also a hotbed of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda activity.
But in late 2006, Sunni Arab tribal leaders sick of al Qaeda's indiscriminate killing of civilians and harsh version of Islam joined the U.S. military to largely expel the group.
(Reporting by Tim Cocks and Adrian Croft; Editing by Keith Weir)