MILITARY: U.S. transferring Anbar responsibility to Iraqis

By MARK WALKER - Staff Writer

Iraq's Anbar province is where the mettle of the Marine Corps has been tested for more than five years.

It's where at least 360 Camp Pendleton and Miramar Marine Corps Air Station troops have died, and where thousands more have been injured, most from roadside bombs.

It's where 11,000 local troops are serving in this, the sixth year of the war in Iraq.

On Saturday, in a ceremony once considered improbable, the U.S. military will transfer primary security responsibility for the sprawling western Iraqi region to Iraqi army and security forces.

For the Marines, who have had the lead role in Anbar since early 2004, it's a significant milestone, particularly after an intelligence officer wrote less than two years ago that prospects were grim in the province that borders Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

"There is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the social and political situation," Col. Pete Devlin wrote in a classified assessment that leaked out in September 2006.

That view, according to Marine Gen. James Mattis, the former head of Marine forces in Anbar and throughout the Middle East, was simply mistaken. What helped turned the tide, Mattis said, was wanton violence that wound up targeting the people of Anbar as much as U.S. troops.

"A commonly held view was that the Sunni Triangle would be the last place in Iraq to see the enemy vanquished, if ever," Mattis, who now heads Joint Forces Command in Virginia and serves as a NATO commander, said in response to an e-mail inquiry from the North County Times. "For the first time in this war, thanks to the enemy's mistakes and our troops' stoic commitment to progress in the face of violence, we saw the indigenous people turn with us against the enemy.

"We owe an irredeemable debt to the troops and their families who have brought this Iraqi-American victory despite danger, grievous wounds, tragic losses and separations."

Lt. Gen. Samuel Helland, who succeeded Mattis as head of Middle East Marine forces and as commander of Camp Pendleton's 40,000-strong I Marine Expeditionary Force, said the Iraqis are ready to take control.

"As mentors, trainers, facilitators, and their partners, the Marines are excited and proud of the Iraqi accomplishments," Helland said Tuesday. "They are on the established path to success."

'Waiting since 2003'

Anbar, with about 1.5 million residents, becomes the 10th of 18 Iraqi provinces to see security responsibility returned to domestic forces. Its governor, Mamun Sami Rasheed, told the Reuters news agency Tuesday that "we have been dreaming of this event since 2003."

Home to cities such as Haditha, Ramadi and Fallujah, the latter the site of the largest urban warfare since the Vietnam War and now a storied name in Marine Corps lore because of its troops heroics there, Anbar's Sunni population sided with the insurgency following the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

That began to change in late 2006, largely the result of violence against Sunni tribesmen themselves and the sheer force represented by the Marine Corps, according to John Pike, a military expert who heads Washington's

"The Marines finally convinced the tribes in Anbar that they were the strongest tribe," Pike said during a telephone interview Tuesday. "But there's no question that this is a significant chapter in the history of the Marine Corps that gives them considerable bragging rights."

While Marine Corps forces will remain in Anbar as a backup for the Iraqis, Anbar is one place that the U.S. can legitimately declare success, Pike said.

"If one is looking at victory, you would have to look at Anbar because that place has really gotten turned around," he said.

In Fallujah, Marine spokesman Lt. Col. Chris Hughes said during a Tuesday telephone interview that there is no question work remains to be done in Anbar.

"We are being careful about how we celebrate and careful about proclaiming victory," he said. "But Anbar is now becoming more and more an Iraqi matter and less of a Marine Corps matter to resolve."

In that regard, the man who heads troops on the ground in Anbar, Camp Pendleton's Maj. Gen. John Kelly, said Iraqis will lead the planning and conduct of security operations.

"We are here for them if they need us, but they are ready," Kelly told the North County Times this week. "We will continue to build upon Iraqi Security Force capabilities and provide assistance as requested. Gradually, we will move into an overwatch posture away from the population centers."

Kelly predicted the current U.S. force level of more than 25,000 troops won't see a major reduction for several months.

And while there are no plans for any immediate large U.S. base closures, four of 10 "forward operating" bases such as one in the city of Hit are being transferred to the Iraqis this year, Kelly said.

An updated U.S. government assessment of Iraq released Monday found that while al-Qaida is weakened, elements were regrouping along Anbar's upper Euphrates River, underscoring why U.S. force say they won't be leaving soon.

The commandant of the Marine Corps, however, said last year that he wanted to move his combat troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. Several thousand Marines were sent there this year, the first large increase in Marine presence since the 2001 invasion.

While there are no announced plans to boost those numbers, Pike said he would not be surprised to see more Marines in Afghanistan next year, particularly because calls for more coalition troops have been met with limited success.

"Afghanistan is heading in the wrong direction and the U.S. is having a hard time getting more people out of NATO, so I would think the Pentagon would certainly have to be looking at that," he said.

Contact staff writer Mark Walker at (760) 740-3529 or