BAGHDAD (Reuters) - 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.
Anbar, a vast region to the west of Baghdad, was once the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgency against U.S. forces and Shi‘ite-led governments in Baghdad.
It is set to be the first Sunni Arab region handed back to Iraqi control, a sign of the remarkable turnaround in security in the province since tribes there turned against al Qaeda.
Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Hughes, spokesman for the U.S. Marines in western Iraq, said the delay was not linked to a bomb attack in Anbar on Thursday. The attack killed 20 people, including three U.S. Marines and two interpreters.
“Later this evening, we’re expecting a brown-out. It’s going to be difficult to travel,” Hughes said.
“We’ve lost so much out here, we don’t want this (handover) to go un-noticed,” he said, referring to the hundreds of U.S. Marines killed in the province since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Ahmed Abu Risha, the head of Iraq’s U.S.-backed Awakening Council, an alliance of Sunni Arab tribes fighting al Qaeda militants, said Iraqi security forces took the decision to postpone the handover because of the weather.
But he added that it would most likely have been delayed anyway out of respect for the victims of Thursday’s bombing in Garma, 30 km (20 miles) west of Baghdad.
“This also is a reason for delaying: There will be all these funerals in Anbar ... It is respectful not to hold ceremonies while the funerals are still on,” he said.
The U.S. military said its forces killed an al Qaeda militant and detained another eight in operations in different parts of the country on Thursday and Friday.
One of those arrested was suspected of links to an al Qaeda cell in Anbar believed to be responsible for Thursday’s bombing, it said in a statement.
No new date has been set for the handover of the province, but Hughes said he expected it would go ahead next week.
Security responsibilities are already being gradually transferred to Iraqi forces anyway, he said. “It’s not going to change anything on the ground. It’s very symbolic.”
Anbar will be the 10th of Iraq’s 18 provinces returned to Iraqi security control since 2003, but the first Sunni Arab region.
In late 2006, Sunni Arab tribal leaders sick of al Qaeda’s indiscriminate killing of civilians and puritanical version of Islam joined with the U.S. military to largely expel the group.
Violence fell sharply and that model for cooperation was then exported to Baghdad and other parts of Iraq.
Since then, al Qaeda has been increasingly squeezed into Iraq’s northern provinces, especially the city of Mosul, considered the group’s last major urban stronghold.
A car bomb in Mosul killed 18 people on Thursday.
Though very much weakened by a loss of popular support and military operations against it, the Islamist group is still a major threat and has the means to carry out lethal, large-scale bombings, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.
After Thursday’s bombs, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi called for an immediate review of Iraq’s security procedures, suggesting they were still insufficient to deal with threats.
“The Iraqi security situation is still fragile and it’s necessary to take security precautions to reduce casualties,” he said in a statement on Friday.
U.S.-led forces have so far transferred security control of three Kurdish provinces in the north and six Shi‘ite provinces in the south, all areas which largely escaped the Sunni Arab insurgency or bitter sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007.
In other violence, gunmen shot dead a leading Iraqi judge in an ambush as he drove home in eastern Baghdad late on Thursday, police said.
Kamel al-Shewaili, head of one of Baghdad’s two appeals courts, was the latest in a series of judges, academics and other professionals to be targeted by militants.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft, Waleed Ibrahim and Khalid al-Ansary; writing by Tim Cocks, editing by Dominic Evans