U.S. Marines end role in Iraq

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If all goes as planned, the last remaining Marines will be followed out by tens of thousands of soldiers in the coming months. President Barack Obama has ordered all but 50,000 troops out of the country by Aug. 31, with most to depart after the parliamentary election in March.

The remaining troops will leave by the end of 2011 under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact.

The changeover at Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, leaves the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division with responsibility over both Baghdad and Anbar, the vast desert province that stretches from western Baghdad to the borders of Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

The province was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that erupted after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. In the battles for control of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, the Marines saw some of the most brutal and deadliest fighting of the war.

Violence began dropping off in the province in late 2006 when Sunni fighters — known as Awakening Councils — turned against al-Qaida and sided with the Marines to fight the insurgency.

The upcoming parliamentary election is considered an important step toward speeding the U.S. troop pullout and seeking progress on stalled political initiatives. Among them: passing laws clarifying the rules for foreign oil investment and dividing the revenue among Iraq’s main groups.

But plans to ban hundreds of candidates have raised deep concerns in Washington that the voting could widen rifts between the majority Shiites who gained power after Saddam’s fall and Sunnis who are struggling to regain influence.

Biden, who arrived late Friday, had a full agenda of meetings with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has strongly supported the blacklist and has resisted attempts at possible American mediation.

Some Sunni leaders have accused the Shiite-led government of using the ban as a political tool. But al-Maliki insists that Iraq must purge all ties to Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime. A vetting panel has put 512 names on the blacklist and more are expected.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told The Associated Press that during the meeting with al-Maliki, Biden was careful not to “give the wrong message that America wants to interfere in the Iraqi affairs.”

Biden later met with Talabani, who has asked for a legal review on the blacklist. The courts are expected to examine whether the vetting panel has legal grounding because it does not have formal parliamentary approval.

The panel includes two controversial Shiite figures: Ali al-Lami, who was once detained by the U.S. military over a 2008 attack in a Shiite district of Baghdad; and Ahmed Chalabi, who is blamed for supplying U.S. officials with faulty intelligence on Saddam’s weapons program prior to the 2003 invasion.

Al-Lami is also a candidate in the March election — raising further complaints from Sunnis about possible political motives behind the list.

Associated Press Writers Matt Apuzzo and Bushra Juhi in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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