SAN DIEGO The drawdown of Marines from the former Sunni insurgent stronghold of Anbar will take time because there is still much work to be done, a top U.S. commander said Sunday on the eve of the once violent province's transfer to Iraqi security control.
Today's handover of Anbar, scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war, marks a major milestone in America's strategy of turning security responsibility over to the Iraqis so that U.S. troops can eventually go home.
"The Marine force will be smaller soon," Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly told The Associated Press in an exclusive telephone interview Sunday from Iraq. "I don't think it will be overnight. I think it will happen incrementally."
Kelly said he has already made his recommendation for troop cuts in the province to the top-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Petraeus' No. 2, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin. Petraeus is widely expected to conclude in the coming weeks that the outlook in Iraq has improved enough to merit more troop reductions this fall.
Kelly's comments come after the top Marine Corps general, Gen. James Conway, said last week that fewer Marines were needed in Iraq and could be shifted to other places, such as Afghanistan.
Sen. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential nominee, is said to have also told Petraeus some U.S. forces should be pulled out of Iraq and deployed to Afghanistan when the two met in July in Baghdad.
Since he took command of U.S. forces in western Iraq in February, Kelly said he has seen his troop level drop 40 percent from 37,000 troops to 25,000 today. He has also has seen a 60 percent drop in Iraqi troops in the region after several battalions were sent to fight Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra and Baghdad's Sadr City.
Kelly would not divulge the specifics of his troop cut recommendation. But he made clear that the U.S. military mission in Anbar was not finished.
"Our job until we leave, whenever that is, is to continue training the Iraqi police, training the Iraqi army, giving them advice ... and continuing to be a force for stability," he said.
In recent months, Kelly said he has sent eight helicopters, including four CH-53 Sea Stallions and four Cobras, as well as several Marine detachments to Afghanistan to help with military operations there.
"There are things here that I can do without for sure. Things that we brought here in the bad old days that I simply don't need anymore," he said.
But Kelly said he disputes the view that "Marines in Iraq are bored."
"Everyone here is working 15 to 20 hours a day," he said. "This is still a dangerous place."
He says he tells Marines in Iraq who express interest in going to Afghanistan that there is still work to be done.
"That is in the Marine DNA to be in a real fight. But this is the toughest part of what we have been doing here, putting the plug in the insurgency. It's very intellectual and requires a tremendous amount of patience," he said.
Kelly said he also has spent months trying to quell fears among Iraqis that once the handover was complete U.S. troops would leave Anbar.
"It's taken a long time to get to this point, and certainly mistakes were made on the ground in Anbar," he said. "Things were done that perhaps in retrospect alienated people and caused them to move against us."
Anbar, the largest Iraqi province that stretches from the western gates of Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, was once the centerstage in the Sunni insurgency, which broke out soon after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.
Anbar's fiercely independent Sunni tribes resented the presence of thousands of non-Muslim foreign soldiers. Many Sunnis turned to al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgent groups.
In late 2006, however, many of those groups turned against al-Qaida because of the movement's attempt to dominate the insurgency. Many Sunni tribal leaders opposed al-Qaida's brutal tactics, including mass killings of Shiite civilians and its attempt to impose strict Islamic rule.
Disaffected tribesmen organized awakening councils that joined forces with the Americans to push al-Qaida out of the province. That enabled U.S. forces to gain control of the provincial capital of Ramadi and other cities long considered killing zones for Americans.
Now Anbar is considered one of the quieter parts of the country, though Kelly said there are about 8 to 10 incidents a week, ranging from IED explosions to arrests. With the transfer of Anbar, Iraqis will control security in 11 of the country's 18 provinces.
Today's handover comes after several aborted attempts. Initially scheduled for March, the transfer was pushed back to June.
U.S. officials blamed two delays in June on weather and then delays in July on a last-minute disagreement between the province's governor and the Iraqi government in Baghdad over control of security forces.
Security concerns also caused delays after a suicide bomber in a police uniform killed more than 20 people, including three Marines, in the town of Karmah, 20 miles west of Baghdad.
Kelly said there would be no further delays despite security concerns and the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.