US delays handover to Iraq government in Anbar Province

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Alexandra Zavis
Los Angeles Times / June 28, 2008

BAGHDAD - The US military yesterday postponed a weekend ceremony to hand over responsibility for security in Anbar Province to the Iraqi government, citing forecasts of bad weather.

Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes, a military spokesman, said the decision was not connected to a suicide bombing at a community meeting in the Anbar town of Karmah on Thursday that killed more than 20 people, including three US Marines and two interpreters.

High winds and dust storms are expected today. Hughes said the conditions would prevent US and Iraqi officials from flying to the event.

The military provided no new date for the official hand over, but said it would take place soon.

Anbar, the vast province west of Baghdad that stretches to the borders of Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, was long the center of the Sunni Arab-driven insurgency against US forces and their Iraqi allies. But the number of attacks has plummeted since local tribal leaders rebelled in late 2006 against the religious extremist militant groups among them, including Al Qaeda in Iraq.

The collaboration between US forces and local tribesmen became the model for the Sons of Iraq program, which is credited with driving down violence in other Sunni-dominated parts of the country. The US program pays local gunmen about $10 a day to help protect their neighborhoods.

Anbar would be the 10th of Iraq's 18 provinces to return to Iraqi control and the first one that is predominantly Sunni Arab. The others are mostly Shi'ite Muslim or dominated by ethnic Kurds.

The US military said yesterday that a member of an extremist cell believed to be behind Thursday's suicide attack in Karmah has been arrested. US spokesmen said it was unclear whether the suspect, who was not identified, was directly involved in planning the attack.

The attack led some local Iraqi officials to question whether the handover was premature.

Some argued that the provincial police force should first be cleansed of insurgent collaborators.

The bomber, who detonated an explosive belt at a meeting of tribal sheiks and government officials opposed to Al Qaeda in Iraq, was dressed in a police uniform.

US officers said the attack appeared to be the work of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni militant group that dominated the province at the time of the tribal uprising.

In other developments, police said a senior Iraqi judge was killed in a drive-by shooting in east Baghdad on Thursday. Judge Kamil Shewaili, the head of one of Baghdad's two appeals courts, was driving home when the attack happened.

To the south, Iraqi security forces said they arrested two municipal officials in Maysan province for allegedly "violating the law."

Iraqi forces have launched a crackdown in the province and its capital city of Amarah to rid the area of Shi'ite militias.

Followers of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr claim the operation is aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections expected this fall.

The Pentagon is preparing to send roughly 30,000 replacement troops to Iraq early next year. The move would allow the United States to maintain 15 combat brigades in the country through 2009.

That change, however, depends on whether General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, decides in the fall to further reduce troop levels in Iraq.

Several officials familiar with the deployments spoke on condition of anonymity because the orders have not yet been made public.

In Baghdad, Iraqi authorities announced they have restored the bust of Abu Jaafar Al-Mansour, the eighth-century founder of the city. Saddam Hussein had often compared himself to Mansour.

A blast damaged the monument in Baghdad's Mansour district in October 2005, a day before Hussein went on trial for killing Shi'ite Muslims in Dujail - a charge for which he was later hanged.

Many Sunnis believed Shi'ite extremists were responsible for damaging the monument.

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