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Iraq Sunni Arab dispute may delay Anbar handover

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The transfer of security to Iraq from the U.S. military in western Anbar province could be delayed because of a dispute between Sunni Arab tribal leaders and politicians in the vast desert region.

The head of the provincial council as well as a prominent Sunni Arab tribal sheikh said this week they were both urging the government to put the handover off for a few months.

The row hinges on who should be in charge of security in the former insurgent heartland. The council wants ultimate control, which normally happens when U.S.-led forces transfer security, while tribal leaders want Iraq’s military to have the final say.

The row illustrates the deepening mistrust between urbanised Sunni Arab politicians in the Iraqi Islamic Party, which dominates the council, and tribal leaders who rose to prominence as part of a movement that joined forces with the U.S. military to expel al Qaeda from Anbar.

Those tensions will likely play out in elections later this year when most Sunni Arabs will vote for local leaders for the first time after largely boycotting provincial polls in 2005.

Anbar was once the centre of the Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. forces as well as an al Qaeda haven.

But security has dramatically improved, and it was to be the first Sunni Arab province handed over to Iraqi authorities at the end of June. That ceremony was delayed by sandstorms, the U.S. military has said. No new date has been set.

On Wednesday, U.S.-led forces handed over southern Qadisiya province, giving Iraq security control in 10 of its 18 regions.

“The provincial council has suggested we postpone the security handover security for ... three months,” Abdul Salam al-Aani, head of the Anbar Provincial Council, told Reuters.

He said the council had sent a request to the government in Baghdad this week.

Sheikh Ali Hatam Al-Sulaiman, one of Anbar’s most prominent tribal leaders, said tribal elders wanted to delay the handover until after the provincial elections. Sheikh Hameed Farhan al-Hayyes, another tribal leader, supported Sulaiman’s comments.

“There are deep conflicts between the tribal heads and council,” Sulaiman told Reuters.

“We don’t trust this council. They have wasted their budget, enriched themselves at the expense of Anbaris and provided no services. We must postpone the handover, it will cause chaos.”

Few people voted in Anbar in the January 2005 elections.

The poll was won by the Iraqi Islamic Party, one of the few places where it competed in local elections. The party is headed by Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi.

Aani denied Sulaiman’s allegations. “There are some voices who want to bring instability and insecurity to this province. Their protests are flimsy,” he said.

The U.S. military said the Iraqis would largely determine when to have the handover.

“Several dates have been discussed (but) these are largely Iraqi decisions. We will be there when they tell us,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the U.S. Marines in western Iraq.

Writing by Tim Cocks, Editing by Dean Yates