In an event touted by President Bush as a sign of U.S. success in Iraq but tinged with evidence of political friction and security threats bubbling below the surface, U.S. forces on Monday handed control of security in Anbar province to the Iraqis.
The U.S. military also said Iraq’s government on Oct. 1 plans to assume authority over more than 50,000 mainly Sunni Arab fighters known as the Sons of Iraq and allied with U.S. forces in Baghdad.
Taken together, the developments represent a major shift that will test the Shiite Muslim-led government’s willingness to support Sunni-led efforts considered key to sustaining relative calm in Iraq and fostering reconciliation.
The Sons of Iraq program was born in Anbar in 2006 when tribal leaders in the Sunni-dominated province turned against the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and allied themselves with U.S. forces. They called their movement the Awakening, and their foot soldiers became known as the Sons of Iraq.
Now, there are about 99,000 Sons of Iraq nationwide, most of them Sunnis, many of them former insurgents, and each getting $300 a month from the U.S. military. Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government has vowed to incorporate them into Iraq’s security forces or find them other jobs, but Sons of Iraq leaders say Maliki is stalling and waging a campaign of arrest and intimidation against many of them.
Their distrust was evident at the Anbar ceremony.
So was the distrust between Awakening leaders and Sunni lawmakers on the Anbar provincial council, who tribal chiefs say are corrupt and denying leaders of the security program the political clout they deserve.
In his speech, the head of the Anbar provincial council, Abdul Salam Ani, accused “tribal and political sides” of trying to stir up trouble. “We will not let them,” he said.
Another speaker was Sheik Ahmed Buzaigh abu Risha, the Anbar Awakening movement leader who accused the Maliki government of targeting Sons of Iraq for prosecution related to crimes committed before the movement began.
“They should take into consideration their heroic stances against Al Qaeda during the period starting from 2006 and not before this,” he said.
He also took a swipe at the provincial council, saying it beat him to the podium, “but they haven’t beaten us in taking action, thank God.”
That was a reference to Awakening leaders’ allegations that the Iraqi Islamic Party politicians who dominate Anbar politics did not fight the insurgency but are hogging the spoils of peace.
The politicians counter that they risked their lives by taking part in 2005 provincial elections boycotted by the tribesmen. “We were the ones who faced all the danger,” said Ammar Wajeeh of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
Abu Risha’s brother, Sheik Abdul-Sattar abu Risha, is credited with founding the Awakening movement in 2006. Two years earlier, U.S. forces had launched a major offensive against insurgents in the Anbar city of Fallouja, a battle that galvanized Al Qaeda in Iraq and turned Anbar into the deadliest province for U.S. forces from 2004 through 2006.
By September 2007, things had become so peaceful that Bush met Abdul-Sattar in Anbar. Ten days later, the sheik was assassinated, and his brother replaced him at the helm.
The commander of American forces in Anbar, Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, alluded to the political problems roiling Anbar and warned that security forces had done all they could for the province.
“All we can hope to do is hold what we’ve achieved against the terrorists,” Kelly said of Iraqi and U.S. forces. “There are two things that are desperately needed that security forces cannot provide here: trust and friendship amongst all of you and between the province and the rest of Iraq.”
“I pray God you can achieve this,” Kelly added. “If you will fail . . . then the agony we will have endured together will have been for nothing.”
In Washington, Bush in a statement called the transfer of control “a credit to the courage of our troops, the Iraqi security forces and the brave tribes and other civilians from Anbar.”
Anbar is the 11th of Iraq’s 18 provinces to take control of its security from U.S. forces. The roughly 26,000 American troops there will move into “over-watch” positions, not involved in security operations unless requested by Iraqi security forces or if U.S. officials deem it necessary.
Anbar is the first mainly Sunni province to revert to Iraqi control and it shares a border with Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan, making it prime territory for infiltration by Sunni Muslim insurgents. It was to have been handed over in June, but political turmoil mixed with security breaches delayed the event.
A 5 a.m.-to-5 p.m. vehicular curfew was imposed across Ramadi, the provincial capital, to reinforce security for Monday’s ceremony, and the U.S. military did not even announce the event in advance.
Residents said they were optimistic the transfer would lead to the departure of U.S. forces, but some also expressed wariness about the future.
“I hope it will be a chance for our security forces to practice their jobs in a professional way . . . so we can start rebuilding our province,” Abdullah Fayad said.
In Baghdad, a U.S. military spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, said the Iraqi government had set Oct. 1 as its target date for assuming command and control of the Sons of Iraq in Baghdad and its environs.
It would be the first time the Iraqi government has taken control of the Sons of Iraq. Based on the numbers in Baghdad and their monthly stipends, it means Maliki’s government will have to pay about $15 million a month to sustain the program there.
Times staff writer Saif Hameed in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Ramadi contributed to this report.