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IRAQ: Is a former Al Qaeda stronghold ready to go it alone?

Tariq The police chief of Iraq's Anbar province doesn't hesitate when asked how quickly he'd like to see Iraqi troops take over security from the U.S. forces there. "Soon. Very soon," said Maj. Gen. Tariq Yusif Muhammed between drags on his Pine Super Slim cigarettes.

But the planned hand-over of security control in what used to be Iraq's deadliest region has been stalled since late June. U.S. and Iraqi officials blamed the cancellation of the planned handover, originally scheduled for the last weekend in June, on foul weather. Indeed, dust storms plagued the desert region for several days in June and July.

But so did violence, something that had become so scarce in Anbar that President George W. Bush visited it in September and declared the province a sterling example of "how our strategy is working."

Only a year earlier, Anbar had been under control of Sunni Muslim insurgents loyal to Al Qaeda in Iraq. A decision by Sunni tribal leaders to ally themselves with U.S. forces, and the addition of extra American troops into the sprawling province, quieted things down.

But on June 26, nearly 40 people, including three U.S. Marines, were killed when a bomber blew himself up at a meeting of tribal sheiks and city leaders in an Anbar town. It was the worst such attack in months in Anbar province and was a reminder that insurgents remain active.

Today, the U.S. military announced that a U.S. Marine had been shot and killed by attackers a day earlier, the fourth U.S. troop killed in Anbar so far this month.

Muhammed insists Anbar is safe and that his 28,000 police are prepared to sustain security. He boasts about walking down the streets of its capital, Ramadi, wearing his starched uniform and beret without a bulletproof vest. "I am ready to protect my province," said Muhammed, who grew up in Ramadi and who stayed there with his wife and six children throughout the insurgency. "All of Anbar is now safe."

Why, then, haven't the Iraqis been given security responsibility as has occurred in 10 of Iraq's 18 provinces?

Muhammed isn't saying, but common wisdom holds that U.S. and Iraqi officials are concerned about tensions between the tribal sheiks who led Anbar's turnaround and the Sunni politicians who have reaped many of the profits from the new Anbar. As we wrote back in January, the sheiks see many of these politicians as hijacking development money and other benefits resulting from the Anbar turnaround.

The sheiks want more political clout, but they need to get elected to the provincial council, and that means provincial elections need to take place. Many believe that until those elections occur, security in Anbar is best left under U.S. control lest the sheik-versus-politicians' rivalry leads to violence. But there's no guarantee the elections will take place in October as planned, due to national lawmakers' failure to approve election legislation.

Muhammed insists that the political squabbling involving the sheiks and the politicians of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which currently controls the Anbar provincial council, doesn't affect him. And he insists that their political differences will not lead to unrest -- only "TV battles" performed by politicians looking for publicity. "Of course, there is tension, but it is political," he said.

But Muhammed admits to being frustrated that his control over Anbar only goes so far.

"This is our country. We should hold the ground here," he said.

-- Tina Susman and Saif Rasheed in Baghdad

Photo: U.S. Marine Corps

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