The vast western province of Anbar was once the most dangerous in Iraq — the heartland of the Sunni insurgency. Since 2006, when Anbar's tribal leaders aligned with the U.S. military against al-Qaida in Iraq, attacks have plunged.
Later this week, after several delays, U.S. forces plan to hand over control of the province to the Iraqis.
The commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq, Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, tells Renee Montagne that he thinks the Iraqis are ready to take over on routine matters.
"Once we do turn over control, we'll still have very large, very capable Marine training or adviser teams with all-Iraqi units," Kelly says from Camp Fallujah. "In fact, they're relieved to know that even though we turn it over to them, we're still very, very close partners in the security — and for that matter, the reconstruction — of the province."
Kelly says there are two Iraqi army divisions in Anbar and "both of these two divisions are, in fact, the best in the Iraqi army. The downside of that is they are taken out on a pretty routine basis and taken to other parts of the country because they are very, very reliable."
Kelly says a bombing last week that killed more than 20 people, including three Marines, at a meeting of tribal leaders did not contribute to the delay of the handover.
"The turnover initially was delayed literally because we had a day much like we have now — and that is, you can't see half a mile outside; it's like a heavy snowstorm," he says.
And at the meeting where the suicide bomber hit, Kelly says, 10 different tribes were represented.
"So you had sheiks from all the tribes in the eastern part of the zone killed. The target was all of Anbar, and all of the people of Anbar," he says. "So what is a dastardly act has actually turned a part of this province around, because rather than them going tribal, rather than them taking it into their own hands — which is part of their legal justice system — I think they'll let us handle it."
In Anbar, U.S. forces have gotten help from the Sons of Iraq, the armed citizens' watch groups. But the Iraqi government has been reluctant to bring them into the security forces.
Kelly says the Marines and soldiers in Anbar spend all of their time on partnered operations with the Iraqi police, the army or the Sons of Iraq.
"I have about 5,000 of them, and we do pay their salaries and they do do good work for us," Kelly says of the Sons of Iraq.
"One of the things we've started ... [is that] any of them that, as an example, don't read and write, we've got them going to reading and writing school, so that they can qualify for other jobs someday," he says. "Most of the Sons of Iraq — 68 percent of them when we asked them — want to be soldiers. As soon as I've got openings, as many of those 68 percent that are qualified — and, again, that's where the reading and writing comes in — I'll truck them on down to the recruiting station or bring the recruiting station directly to them.
"Some of them want to be architects and brick masons and we're looking at vocational schools for them as well, so I don't have any second thoughts about these guys going into any of the security forces here in Anbar."