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U.S. Troops Leave Iraqi City, Hand Control Over to Iraqis

By Dexter Filkins

The New York Times -- BAGHDAD, Iraq

A U.S. commander is preparing to pull troops back from Ramadi, a city at the center of guerrilla activity, and turn it over to Iraqi officers, an experiment that could change the course of the occupation of Iraq.

The commander, Maj. Gen. Charles H. Swannack Jr., of the 82nd Airborne Division, said in an interview last week that troops stationed in Ramadi might be ready to withdraw as early as January. About 18,000 Americans are stationed in Anbar province, with several thousand of those in Ramadi, military officials said.

Swannack said his troops would “stand back” outside the town, ready to help the Iraqi police when needed, but otherwise leaving policing duties to them. To help prepare the Iraqis, he said, the U.S. soldiers have begun joint patrols with them.

Ramadi, the provincial capital, with about 250,000 residents, has been a center of armed resistance against the U.S. occupation. About 80 miles west of Baghdad, it is in the heart of the area north and west of the capital known as the Sunni Triangle, which is generating most of the attacks against Americans.

“By January or February, we will start backing away and letting them do it,” Swannack said of the Iraqi police. “We will become the backup and the checkers if they aren’t doing something right,” he added in the interview, at his headquarters in Ramadi.

The plan, if it works, would represent a significant shift in U.S. efforts to pacify areas dominated by Sunni Arabs, who benefited the most from the reign of Saddam Hussein. The plan seems to dovetail with Washington’s recent push to accelerate the transfer of political responsibilities to the Iraqis.

Many Iraqi leaders have been urging U.S. commanders to take a lower profile, saying their presence alone is prompting resentment and violence against the Americans.

The question in Ramadi is how well the Iraqi security forces, assembled and trained by the Americans, sometimes with great haste, will perform on their own. Some security forces in Anbar are not fully equipped with guns and radios. Many of the province’s 4,000 Iraqi police officers have not gone through the training courses taught by the Americans, officials said.

American and British commanders have executed similar pull-backs, but in cities dominated by Kurds, Shiite Muslims and Christians, groups that have been largely receptive to the occupation.

The plan outlined by Swannack appears to be the broadest attempt so far to pull U.S. troops back from a city dominated by Sunni Arabs. A more limited transfer was tried in Fallujah in July.

The 18,000 soldiers under Swannack’s command are spread across a wide desert expanse. Anbar province, particularly the areas around Ramadi and Fallujah, has been the center of resistance against the occupation since 15 Iraqis were killed by U.S. soldiers during a riot in Fallujah in April.

The violence has risen sharply. In September, U.S. soldiers were attacked 340 times in Anbar; in October, there were 450 attacks.

But Swannack said he had made steady progress in Ramadi, not just in training security forces but also in winning over allegiance from residents. Ramadi currently has about 1,600 Iraqi police officers.