BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. troops will on Sept. 1 hand over control of Iraq’s Anbar province, once the heart of a bloody Sunni Arab insurgency, reflecting a dramatic drop in violence across the country, an Iraqi official said on Thursday.
Iraqi forces will officially assume control of the vast region west of Baghdad, said Major-General Tareq al-Dulaimi, the provincial police commander.
Anbar, whose insurgency once posed the greatest challenge to U.S. forces and Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government, became a relatively peaceful place after Sunni tribal leaders turned against al Qaeda militants and formed neighborhood police units that became a model for security efforts across Iraq.
Iraq now has security control of 10 of its 18 provinces. General David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, said last month he hoped to add at least two more provinces to Iraqi control by the end of the year, in addition to Anbar.
The ceremony in Anbar, the first Sunni Arab province to be handed back to Iraqi forces, had been scheduled for late June, but was delayed amid a row between local political leaders.
A spokesman for the U.S. Marines stationed in Anbar said in June that Iraqis had been gradually assuming control of security duties there, and called the handover largely symbolic.
U.S. troops “will be positioned in their bases outside the cities, and there will not be troops seen patrolling inside the city unless necessary,” a source at national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie’s office said on condition of anonymity.
“The province is ready for the handover. The Iraqi security forces are up to the job,” he said.
The calm in Anbar mirrors a remarkable drop in bloodshed across the country to four-year lows.
The government of Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki is now seeking assurances about a gradual reduction of U.S. military activities in Iraq as part of a security deal it is negotiating with Washington.
Maliki has said the two sides have agreed that U.S. troops must leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Officials say al Qaeda, though weakened, still poses a threat. Iraqi and U.S. forces have been conducting a major operation in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, where al Qaeda fighters are believed to be dug in around the countryside.
The Iraqi security official said two other provinces, Wasit, to the southeast of Baghdad, and Babil to the south, had been nominated as candidates for handover to Iraqi control.