AL-RAMADI, Iraq -- The U.S. military hands over Iraq's western Al-Anbar Governorate to Iraqi security forces on September 1, less than two years after the region was all but lost to a Sunni Arab insurgency.
"We would not have even imagined this in our wildest dreams three or four years ago," Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters before the ceremony in Al-Ramadi.
"If we had said that we were going to hand over security responsibility from the foreign troops to civilian authority, people would laugh at us. Now I think it's a reality."
Al-Anbar is the 11th out of Iraq's 18 governorates and the first Sunni Arab one to be returned to Iraqi control since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Al-Anbar's government headquarters was draped with colorful tribal flags when hundreds of people turned out to see U.S., Iraqi, and tribal officials, many wearing traditional desert garb, preside over the handover ceremony.
The turnover in the desert region had been slated for June, but was delayed due to a row between local political leaders.
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Hughes, a spokesman for the U.S. Marines in western Iraq, said the handover was largely ceremonial since Iraqi forces had been operating independently for several months.
Al-Anbar, with little oil wealth but strategic importance in its borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, was once a haven for Sunni Islamist Al-Qaeda and the scene of fierce battles against U.S. forces and Iraq's Shi'ite-led government.
Some of the bloodiest battles in more than five years of war have taken place in Al-Anbar, including two devastating assaults by U.S. forces on the city of Al-Fallujah in 2004.
The first of those is thought to have killed hundreds of civilians and the second left many parts of the city in ruins.
Key parts of Al-Anbar were once in the grip of Al-Qaeda.
Awakening In Al-Anbar
Things changed in late 2006, when Sunni Arab tribal leaders fed up with Al-Qaeda's harsh tactics and puritanical brand of Islam switched sides, helping the U.S. military to largely expel the group from the region.
Al-Anbar's "Awakening" became a model for grassroots guard units across the country, which U.S. officials credited with helping sharply reduce violence across Iraq.
Some 382 Iraqi civilians were killed in August, Iraqi government figures showed, far below the over 1,770 killed in August 2007.
Violence against U.S. troops has also dropped over the last year. Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed in combat in Iraq in August, according to independent website icasualties.org, up from six in July. In August 2007, 56 U.S. troops and four British soldiers were killed
But attacks continue in Baghdad and other restive areas across Iraq.
Tensions have simmered in Al-Anbar in recent months, too, between Awakening leaders, Iraqi government forces, and local councilors led by the Islamic Party. Some Awakening fighters complain their members are not being incorporated into Iraqi security forces.
Memories are also fresh of bloody events in the town of Al-Hadithah in 2005, where U.S. Marines were accused of killing 24 Iraqi civilians. Of eight Marines originally charged, six have won dismissals and a seventh was acquitted at court martial. The accused ringleader still faces court martial.