MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Iraqi security forces are now in charge in Anbar province. Anbar has been the site of some of the bloodiest fighting in Iraq. Thirteen hundred American service members have lost their lives there.
Today, at a ceremony in Ramadi, the U.S. military handed over responsibility several months later than planned. The original handoff set for June was postponed after a suicide bombing near Fallujah. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was at the event today and she filed this report.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Under the blazing Iraqi sun at a makeshift table in front of the Provincial Council Building in Ramadi, the American military formally handed over security control to the Iraqis.
Unidentified Man #1: It's done.
Unidentified Man #2: Thank you very much. Thank you very much.
(Soundbite of applause)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Both the Americans and the Iraqis called it a historic occasion that was once unimaginable. Two years ago, a Marine Intelligence Report concluded that al-Qaeda in Iraq had made such inroads that the war was lost in Anbar.
Today, Iraq security advisor Mowaffaq al-Rubaie touted the turnaround here.
Mr. MOWAFFAQ AL-RUBAIE (Iraq National Security Advisor, Anbar): If we have dreamt in our wildest dream, three or four years ago, of this, probably it would -people would laugh at us and ridicule us. Now I think it's a reality.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Police Chief General Tareq al A'sal recalled fighting insurgents on the very street today's agreement was signed. The local government and the U.S. military could not venture outside of fortified compounds without being attacked.
Mr. TAREQ AL A'SAL (Police Chief General, Anbar): (Through translator) Anbar was completely controlled by al-Qaeda. There was killing in the streets in the cities and the countryside. Teachers were killed in front of the students, parents were killed in front of their sons. Anbar used to be an example of all the bad things. American and the Iraqi government had nothing to be proud of.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The tipping point came when the region's Sunni Arab community mounted a backlash against al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was led by Iraqi tribal leaders in the area who allied themselves with the Americans, who in turn paid the tribal militias to secure their neighborhoods. The Awakening Movement, as it's now known, is credited with almost singlehandedly changing the security environment in Anbar.
(Soundbite of music)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Today's ceremony ended with a parade of police and army vehicles festooned with plastic flowers as the dignitaries watched from covered bleachers. Still, despite the ostensible celebration, there were visible tensions among those in attendance. The local government, which is dominated by a small Baghdad-based Sunni party, is in a fierce power struggle with the Awakening councils, who are trying to assert political control ahead of promised provincial elections.
In addition, the Sunni Awakening Movement, long mistrusted by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, is now being openly targeted by Iraq's National Security Forces. The Americans are deeply unhappy about the central government's actions, yet hundreds of Awakening members are on arrest lists. And in many areas, the groups are being forcibly disbanded under orders from Baghdad.
There was a clear sign of the unease between the groups. Despite his contribution to pacifying the province, the most prominent Awakening leader in Anbar, Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, had been left off the speakers list and was only hastily added at the end. He used his speech to angrily berate the central government for trying to arrest his men.
Sheikh AHMED ABU RISHA (Awakening leader, Anbar): (Through translator) We have been surprised that the central government has made this arrest list without taking in consideration the heroic acts and sacrifices of our members who fought the extremists.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Anbar faces other challenges. Sunni residents here complain the Shiite government has been slow in providing funds for reconstruction. There's also a lack of services and jobs. The commander of the 25,000-strong U.S. force in Anbar, Marine Major General John Kelly, ended his speech with this warning to the assembled guests.
Major General JOHN KELLY (Commanding General, Marines): What Anbar needs now is economic development, reconstruction, and funds for compensation. This can only come from the central government in Baghdad. There are two other things that are desperately needed, trust and friendship amongst you all. I pray God you can achieve this, as you will fail if you do not, and the agony we have endured together will have been for nothing.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Ramadi.