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Fewer Marines needed in Iraq’s western province

    WASHINGTON — Conditions in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, where a brutal insurgency once ruled, have improved so dramatically that the United States is handing over responsibility for security in the Sunni stronghold to Iraq within days. Troops freed up in Iraq could shift to Afghanistan.
    ‘‘There aren’t a whole heck of a lot of bad guys there left to fight,’’ Gen. James T. Conway, the top Marine Corps general, said Wednesday.
    A ceremony marking the Anbar turnover is expected to be held Monday, several U.S. and Iraqi officials said. Each spoke on condition of anonymity because the Iraqi government has not yet announced it. Anbar would be the 10th of Iraq’s 18 provinces to be returned to Iraqi government control, a step toward phasing out the American combat role as Iraqi security forces grow more competent.
    The developments in Anbar have additional resonance because the province once was synonymous with the worst violence and lawlessness unleashed in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
    The turnaround in Anbar is all the more dramatic for what it might mean for Afghanistan, the fight that has in some ways supplanted Iraq as a front-line battleground. The diverging trends make it likely that a U.S. buildup in Afghanistan will follow a drawdown in Iraq.
    Conway said he learned on a visit to Anbar this summer that violence remains low and the 25,000 Marines there are doing more rebuilding than fighting.
    ‘‘Quite frankly, young Marines join our Corps to go fight for their country,’’ Conway said. ‘‘They are doing a very good job of this nation-building business (in Iraq). But it’s our view that if there is a stiffer fight going someplace else ... then that’s where we need to be.’’
    That place might be Afghanistan, he said.
    Speaking at a Pentagon news conference, Conway said the top American commander in Anbar, Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, believes fewer U.S. forces are needed to keep the peace. He said Kelly has proposed cutbacks to his superiors, but Conway declined to give specifics, saying only that the current number of Marines there is excessive.
    The remarks by Conway, who is responsible for Marines’ recruiting, training and equipping but not their use in combat, are an additional sign of the likelihood that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will recommend soon that troop withdrawals resume this fall. Petraeus has been assessing the overall security situation in light of the withdrawal of five Army combat brigades earlier this year.
    There now are about 146,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures.
    The Petraeus recommendation, which is expected to be accepted by President Bush, is important not only for its implications in Iraq and for its potential impact on the presidential contenders’ debate over Iraq but also for its connection to what U.S. commanders call an urgent need for more troops in Afghanistan — perhaps as many as 10,000 more.
    The U.S. military is stretched so thin by the two wars that it cannot send significant additional numbers of combat forces to Afghanistan until the numbers in Iraq have been reduced. Conway likes the idea of sending more Marines to Afghanistan, but only if they thin out in Iraq.
    Defense Secretary Robert Gates earlier this year dispatched more than 3,400 Marines to Afghanistan, including roughly 1,200 to serve as trainers for the Afghan forces.
    The trainers are from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. The other unit there is the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which is fighting in the south. They already had their seven-month tours extended until the end of November. Conway said he would not rule out another short extension for a ‘‘small segment’’ of the Marines.
    Marines have been the primary, but not only, U.S. force in Anbar since spring 2004. It represents a major commitment for the Marines, who are rotating so frequently into and out of Iraq that they typically get only seven months between deployments.
    As recently as 2006, Anbar was the deadliest province in Iraq for American troops. Toward the end of that year, however, the Sunni Arabs who were leading the insurgency in Anbar decided to join hands with U.S. forces to fight the extremist al-Qaida group, and violence levels plunged. In early 2007, U.S. forces wrested control of the provincial capital, Ramadi, from the insurgents.
    Now Anbar is one of the quietest parts of the country, with Iraqi security forces in the lead.
    The timing of Anbar’s return to Iraqi control has been in doubt for months. In January, the top commander in the province said the turnover would be made in March; it was then pushed back to June. Initially, U.S. officials blamed the June delay on a sandstorm, but it became apparent that the Iraqis and Americans had second thoughts about going ahead after a suicide bomber in a police uniform killed more than 20 people, including three Marines, in the town of Karmah, 20 miles west of Baghdad.


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