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Inching toward a milestone in Anbar

The Marines hoped the Iraqis were ready to take over security. They're not, but that day is getting closer.

August 17, 2008|Doug Smith and Saif Rasheed | Times Staff Writers

RAMADI, IRAQ — As Iraqi officials and the U.S. military haggle over when to let Anbar province take control of its own security, a row of broken-down Ford pickups in a Ramadi schoolyard offers a sobering picture of the readiness of the region's security forces.

The U.S. military gave the vehicles to the police officers stationed in a former school here, but the Iraqi government hasn't provided parts or a maintenance system to keep them running. The officers work on their own vehicles, picking parts from the junkers.

A shaky connection with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad is just one of the problems confronting American efforts to disengage from the predominantly Sunni Arab province more than a year after the U.S. military joined with local security forces, former insurgents and tribal warriors to take on Al Qaeda in Iraq here.

A formal transfer from U.S. to Iraqi control over security in Anbar had been scheduled for early July, then put on indefinite hold after a suicide bomber targeted a town council meeting in the town of Karmah, killing three Marines and at least 22 Iraqis. The U.S. military initially blamed poor weather for the postponement, but several local leaders said the bombing showed that Iraqi security forces were still not prepared.

The transfer will be a milestone in the war in Iraq, as a declaration of victory in the birthplace of the insurgency and a province that only two years ago was considered lost to Al Qaeda in Iraq. The delay has put a damper on hopes for a triumphant U.S. withdrawal soon.

Yet even as the ceremony hangs in limbo, Marines and Iraqi police officers in Ramadi are transferring the reins of security, little by little.

On a recent day, Capt. Jonathan Hamilton, commander of the weapons company of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, dropped by the Forsan station, with its impromptu salvage yard.

For more than a year since the Forsan police station was established as an outpost in the abandoned school, a detachment of Marines has lived and worked there alongside the Iraqi police.

Hamilton said it was time for the station to stand on its own. The young police force had proved its capability to maintain the rule of law in this provincial capital of 400,000.

Gradually, the Marines are trying to demilitarize the city, Hamilton said. One by one, they're pulling out the units that billeted in 11 police stations, rolling up their razor wire and withdrawing to bases outside the city.

"We're not leaving, for sure," Hamilton said. "We're just reducing our footprint."

But during his visit to Forsan, the generator conked out. Hamilton had his meeting with police Col. Hassan Nayif Abd, the south precinct commander, in the dark.

"Col. Hassan," as the U.S. commanders call him, was comfortable with the Marine detachment leaving his station, but he certainly didn't want to go cold turkey. Could Hamilton send one of his engineers by to fix the generator, he wanted to know.

Power failures are not the only challenges facing Ramadi's new police force as it lurches toward self-sufficiency. During four days spent with Hamilton's weapons company, The Times observed numerous issues with the management of police stations, including inefficient procurement systems and meddling by tribal sheiks.

At the same time, both U.S. military and Iraqi police commanders are confident that the training and professionalism of the line policemen has progressed so far that there is no immediate concern about a possible resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

"The security situation is good and it is progressing every day," said Lt. Col. Dhahir Mahmoud Allawni, who runs the Warrar police station, where insurgent suspects are detained. "The people will not accept that Al Qaeda returns."

Almost unanimously, local Iraqi police commanders said that they were ready to assume full responsibility, but that it would be better to delay the transfer until after provincial elections, which had been scheduled for October but are delayed indefinitely amid political wrangling.

What concerns them is not Al Qaeda in Iraq, they say, but the complex claims to power that have yet to be resolved since the expulsion of the extremists.

"We have some political conflict," Allawni said. "We have some greedy politicians. They put their self-interest in front of the people's interest. We have a big number of political parties delineated according to their tribes. The terrorists might exploit the conflicts."

The political ferment in Ramadi arose from the nearly complete collapse of legitimate local institutions while Al Qaeda in Iraq controlled the city and during the subsequent fighting.

Not only did the police force disintegrate, but government ministries vanished and elected leaders abandoned the province, at times holding meetings in Baghdad.

In their absence, the sheiks and other leaders created an ad hoc representative government with a citywide council and sub-councils meeting at the neighborhood level.

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