By Kristen Noel
Special to American Forces Press Service
Oct. 12, 2008 - Despite transitioning Anbar province to Iraqi control last month, it's still too soon for U.S. troops to withdraw from the region, the commander of Multinational Force West said. "We certainly do provide a sense of security for the locals here in Anbar, as they work things out amongst themselves in the province," U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly said in an Oct. 10 teleconference with bloggers and online journalists.
More than 25,000 U.S. Marines remain in the province, Kelly said, with additional support from the other services bringing the total up to 27,000 U.S. troops in Anbar. They are providing overwatch to the Iraqi security forces, he said, who assumed prime responsibility for the security of the province in last month's turnover.
"We support [the Iraqis] when they need help," Kelly said, "but they've pretty much got it and are running with the ball."
The reason U.S. troops cannot withdraw outright, Kelly said, is a lingering threat from al-Qaeda. "Anbar province...used to be the most dangerous province in the country, primarily because of al-Qaeda."
The terrorist organization still exists in the province as "very loosely organized" individual cells, he said, but they're no longer considered an insurgency because they've lost the support of the local people.
"So the insurgency is dead," Kelly said, "but al-Qaeda still has – like a snake when you cut its head off – has got a little bit of bite and a little bit of venom."
Another concern, he pointed out, is al-Qaeda is still an insurgency in other parts of the country including Mosul and Baghdad.
"So, it's not quite time to withdraw," he said, "particularly since...Anbar province is part of a country that...has still got quite an insurgency on its hands being pushed back every day."
U.S. forces need to continue providing a stability presence in the province, Kelly said, to support the security forces until the underlying threats diminish and to help the civil authorities who are still learning their jobs.
"If we were to pull those props out too early," Kelly said, "that would, I think, be problematic."
(Kristen Noel works for the New Media branch of the Defense Media Activity.)