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U.S. hands over Anbar, Iraq's once-deadliest region

Anbar Province is where 1 of every 3 US fatalities in Iraq occurred.

Premature: Sheikh Ali al-Hatem says the Anbar handover happened before the region was ready. Al Qaeda remains a threat, he says.

Tom A. Peter/The Christian Science Monitor

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The US military handed over control of Anbar Province Monday, marking a significant milestone in the Iraq war.

Anbar was the deadliest Iraqi province for US troops, with nearly 1 in every 3 Americans killed there. It was once the symbol of Sunni resistance, the base of operations for Al Qaeda, and home to two major US military offensives and the most intense urban combat of the war.

But in the past two years, Anbar has emerged as the symbol of a turnaround as Sunni sheikhs formed "Awakening Councils," ousted Al Qaeda, and created community police forces.

Anbar is the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces to return to Iraqi control, but it is the first predominately Sunni province handed over.

While most praise the transition, some Iraqis are concerned that corrupt police and Al Qaeda remain a threat. "Now the major challenge is how to build on the victories and maintain the situation," says Sheikh Ali al-Hatem, one of the founders of the Awakening movement in Anbar. However, he is critical of the hand-over, saying that Iraqi and American politicians made a rushed decision. "The threat of Al Qaeda has not ended in Anbar," he says.

Backgammon until 1 a.m.

For Hikmat al-Gaaod, mayor of Hit, a town with about 150,000 residents, the handoff comes at just the right moment. Located on the banks of the Euphrates River, insurgents used to traffic personnel, weapons, and supplies through Hit. But today, restaurants along the waterfront stay open late and many residents remain out until 1:00 a.m. socializing and playing backgammon.

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