Sat, Jul 19, 2008 - Page 7 News List

Volatile Anbar delays Iraqi handover

AP , BAGHDAD

US Army Sergeant Clayton Armstrong provides security during a combined patrol with Iraqi police in the Gazaliyah district of Baghdad on July 8.

PHOTO: AFP

Iraq’s government hopes to bring the entire country under its security control by year’s end. But one critical area stands in the way: the western province of Anbar, where the Sunni insurgency was born and later received its first blows from a civil uprising.

The transfer from US military authority in Anbar has become stalled by worries that a hasty move could tempt unrest and reopen rivalries — drawing in the same armed Sunni factions that the US courted to help uproot al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The cautious approach also apparently reflects a desire by Washington not to risk any new complications while Iraqi leaders tussle with a host of messy problems, including seeking agreements on holding provincial elections and opening oil fields to foreign investors.

Talks on Anbar — a vast swath stretching from near Baghdad to the western borders — have moved into the slow lane after much fanfare last month when the planned transfer to Iraqi security control was announced and then abruptly put on hold.

The biggest issue in the holdup is the fear that internal political rivalries in Anbar could escalate into open conflict without US troops as a buffer.

On one side is the old-guard political leadership in Anbar, known as the Iraqi Islamic Party. The other emerging power is the Awakening Council movement — the groups that turned against al-Qaeda last year and helped stir a wider Sunni backlash against the insurgency across Iraq.

The challenge is how to pull out US control without either side feeling it is sacrificing influence or facing pressure from the Shiite-led Iraqi military forces that could step in.

The internal intrigue in Anbar is already growing. Both sides are jockeying ahead of provincial elections that Iraq hopes to hold this fall.

Further rifts could provide an opening for al-Qaeda to try to regain some footing in Anbar, where insurgents still manage to stage infrequent — but significant — attacks.

Last month, a group linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near Fallujah that killed more than 20 people, including three US Marines and prominent sheiks who had turned against the insurgents. One of the Marines commanded the battalion in the area.

A day after the attack, the US military announced the postponement in the ceremonies to handing over Anbar province to Iraqi security control. The statement said a “new date will be announced as soon as it is made available.”

Iraqi officials have hinted at a date sometime after the provincial elections, which are scheduled for Oct. 1.

Sheik Abdul-Karim al-Assal, deputy head of the Anbar Awakening Council, said a security blueprint has been presented to the government. The proposal seeks to bring the Awakening groups into the official security fold.

“We have the ability of maintaining the security of the province along with Iraqi police and army after the handover,” he said.

Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, has said negotiations on Anbar are at “a delicate stage” and cannot be rushed. Still, on Wednesday’s security handover in the southern province of Qadisiyah, he said Iraqi leaders hope to have their military and police in full charge of the entire country by the end of year.

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