August 28, 2008, Washington, DC – For much of the first five years of the Iraq War, the U.S. struggle to pacify Anbar province seemed like a quixotic effort.
The western province was where U.S. forces saw some of the fiercest fighting since Vietnam, a place where more than 1,100 U.S. troops have been killed in action since the start of the war. And with a largely Sunni population that was hostile to U.S. forces and the newly empowered Shiite government in Baghdad, Anbar looked as if it would be the toughest nut to crack in Iraq.
But on Wednesday, in a potent symbol of strides made in what was one of the most troublesome corners of Iraq, the U.S. Marine commandant, Gen. James Conway, said that U.S. troops will turn over control of Anbar to the Iraqi security forces sometime next week. Conway suggested that the security situation has improved so much that it is time to shift the Marines’ presence to Afghanistan.
As the Marines hand over control of security to the Iraqis and move toward shrinking their bootprint in Iraq, they will leave behind a once-hostile Sunni population that is now more empowered but still mistrusted by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated political apparatus in Baghdad.
The final decision on shifting future deployments of Marines – there are now 25,000 in Iraq – would be made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who has expressed his desire to send more troops to Afghanistan as fewer are needed in Iraq. But it’s noteworthy that Conway’s statement comes just weeks before Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing top commander in Iraq, is expected to make recommendations to Gates for further troop cuts in Iraq.
Conway, who recently returned from a visit to Iraq, said Marines serving in the province told him that the areas where U.S. troops once were regularly assaulted by gunfire and roadside bombs are these days largely quiet.
“There aren’t a whole heck of a lot of bad guys there left to fight,” Conway said the Marines told him.
The transfer of authority in Anbar has been expected for weeks but was delayed in part by the reluctance of top Iraqi security officials to see the Americans go.
Still, the moment offers the Pentagon and Bush administration another emblematic reminder of the strides that U.S. troops and Iraqi forces have made in turning around the situation in a giant swath of Iraq that was the scene of some of the most gruesome episodes of the war and what many military analysts feared was a lost cause.
From 2004 through much of 2007, U.S. troops fought pitched battles along the Euphrates River in Anbar’s infamous cities – Fallujah, Ramadi and Hamdaniyah – that were known as strongholds of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Twice in 2004, the U.S. massed thousands of troops in Fallujah to try to weed out Al Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni insurgents based in the city. In the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004, more than 50 U.S. troops were killed and more than 450 seriously wounded in less than two weeks. Fallujah, a city of 300,000, was badly damaged.
In Ramadi, the situation was once so dire that American troops found themselves dodging bullets as they went about reconstruction efforts. And in one of the single deadliest attacks on U.S. troops, 14 Marine reservists were killed in August 2005 in Haditha when a roadside bomb hit their armored troop carrier.
But with the U.S. troop surge and U.S. commanders persuading Sunni tribal leaders to turn on Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters, the once-restive Anbar province has made a sharp turnaround.
Conway, who has long lobbied for Marines to shift their responsibility to Afghanistan, repeated Wednesday that reducing their presence in Iraq would allow them to bolster the U.S. military and NATO’s effort against the Taliban in Afghanistan, where violence and coalition casualties have surpassed those in Iraq in recent months.
Conway said there are now only two or three insurgent attacks per day in Anbar.
“Quite frankly, young Marines join our corps to go fight for their country,” Conway said. “They are doing a very good job of this nation-building business [in Iraq]. But it’s our view that if there is a stiffer fight going someplace else … then that’s where we need to be.”
Nonetheless, there are signs that the gains made in Anbar could be undone.
Perhaps more important to the turnaround in Anbar than the U.S. troop buildup was the creation of the Awakening councils, a movement whose beginnings preceded the troop surge in 2007 and led to the formation of security groups overseen by Sunni tribal chiefs and financed by the U.S. military. Those groups turned on Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters who had taken root in the province.
U.S. forces have been paying the nearly $300-per-month salary for each of the patrolmen in the groups – known as the Sons of Iraq – with the agreement that the Iraqi government would move at least 20 percent of the men into the Iraqi security forces and other Iraqi civil service jobs.
But Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Shiite Iraqi government leaders have resisted bringing the Sunni security forces into the fold, saying that many of the Sons of Iraq not so long ago were backers – if not armed members – of the insurgency.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said last week that only 2,000 of the nearly 101,000 members of Sons of Iraq had been moved into the Iraqi security forces thus far. Petraeus has been critical of the Maliki government as being too slow to integrate the Sons of Iraq.
James Phillips, a Middle East analyst at The Heritage Foundation, said the progress in Anbar is “remarkable.” But he noted that the situation in the province and other areas with significant Sunni populations “could deteriorate into a Hobbesian war of all against all” if steps aren’t taken to integrate the Sons of Iraq into Iraqi security forces or civil service.
“There are valid reasons for the Maliki government to be concerned, but they need to realize that the political kaleidoscope has been altered into something that is favorable for all of Iraq,” Phillips he said.