The American military will hand over responsibility for the security of Anbar province, once a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency and one of the most violent regions in Iraq, to the Iraqi government as early as Monday, Iraqi and American officials said Wednesday.
The turnover would be a milestone for American officials, who have said that reduced violence in the western province shows that a partnership there with the local forces known as Awakening Councils has been successful.
The transfer would also be the first in a province bordering Baghdad, where there has been intense sectarian conflict. Other provinces that have been shifted to Iraqi control have been in the less troublesome south and in the northern Kurdish region.
Security officials in Anbar and a spokesman from the office of Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq’s national security adviser, said the turnover was scheduled to take place on Monday.
In Washington, Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said at a news conference that a ceremony marking the transfer of responsibility could occur in the next few days.
Lt. Col. Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the Marine Corps in Anbar, said that the number of American troops there had dropped from 37,000 in February, to 25,000, and that the Iraqi police force had grown to 28,000, up from 5,000 three years ago.
“There have been dramatic changes in Anbar,” he said.
American forces were originally scheduled to transfer control in late June, but the transfer was postponed. At the time, American military officials said that a dust storm had made it impossible to fly dignitaries in for a ceremony and that the postponement was unrelated to a suicide bombing near Fallujah a day earlier that killed 20 people.
In July, the Anbar Provincial Council asked the American military to delay turning over security for at least a year, saying that Iraqi forces were not prepared to keep tight control of the province’s borders. The appeal was widely perceived as stemming from a bitter dispute between the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has long been politically dominant in Anbar, and the increasingly powerful Awakening Council forces backed by the Americans.
The Awakening Councils were drawn to large extent from the ranks of Sunni Arab insurgents who had fallen out with leaders of al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence agencies have concluded is foreign-led. The Awakening forces took issue with the other group’s violent tactics and religious extremism, and were paid by the American military to provide security.
The councils are credited with reducing crime and violence in Anbar, but have recently come under attack by the Iraqi army, which is controlled by the Shiite government in Baghdad.
The government’s campaign has been particularly pronounced lately in the area west of Baghdad, where the Iraqi army has arrested scores of Awakening members.