As John McCain prepares to accept the Republican nomination for president tonight, the troop surge strategy he championed continues to yield benefits in Iraq. On Monday, the U.S. military handed security control of Anbar province over to the Iraqi government. The transfer was made possible by the extraordinary success that U.S.-led coalition forces and their Iraqi counterparts have had in fighting al Qaeda forces in Anbar, where the number of attacks against Iraqis and Americans has fallen by more than 90 percent since 2006. Anbar, which borders Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, is the 11th of 18 provinces to be turned over to Iraqi security control. Although coalition forces will remain in Anbar for now, security responsibility for the province now belongs to 60,000 members of the Iraqi army and police.
Beginning in 2004, Ramadi, located in Anbar approximately 70 miles west of Baghdad, had become the center of al Qaeda activity in Iraq. Between June and November 2006, American soldiers and Marines fought al Qaeda in the city. By the end of November 2006, it was a staging ground for attacks on Baghdad and was viewed as lost by American forces. A Marine Corps report declaring that U.S. forces could not defeat al Qaeda there was leaked to The Washington Post in late November 2006. But beginning in mid-2006, the situation on the ground began to change. Local Sunni tribesmen, disgusted by al Qaeda’s brutality and thuggery, decided that they were better off cooperating with the United States. That military cooperation continued after the U.S. troop surge began early last year. The result was a tectonic shift in the security situation - one which has largely ended al Qaeda’s ability to stage attacks in that province, at least for now.
Going, forward, it is now the Iraqi government’s responsibility to make sure that the terrorists do not stage a resurgence in Anbar and other provinces in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-dominated government has long had a difficult relationship with members of the so-called Awakening movement - the Sunni groups of former insurgents whose cooperation with U.S. forces has complemented the surge and been critical to U.S. military success in Iraq for the past two years. Washington has hoped that many members of the Awakening movement forces would be integrated into the Iraqi military, and there are conflicting reports about the situation on the ground. On the one hand, there are indications that the Maliki government is planning to integrate these men into the security forces. On the other hand, there are reports that hundreds of them have been arrested as part of some kind of a purge.
Certainly, as the democratically elected leader of a sovereign state, Mr. Maliki has every right to insist that militias disband and that police and military powers remain in government hands. But at the same time, it would be potentially catastrophic if Baghdad purges members of what has become an extraordinarily effective anti-terrorism force in that country.