By Tim Cocks and Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The U.S. military will transfer controlof security in Iraq's Anbar province to Iraqi forces this week,a remarkable turnaround given the vast western region wasconsidered lost to insurgents less than two years ago.
Anbar will be the 10th of Iraq's 18 provinces returned toIraqi security control since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, butit will be the first Sunni Arab region handed back.
Mamun Sami Rasheed, Anbar's governor, said the handoverceremony would take place on Saturday.
"We have been dreaming of this event since 2003," he said.
The commander of U.S. forces in western Iraq, MarineMajor-General John Kelly, said the impending handover showedIraqi forces were increasingly ready to defend Iraq againstthreats such as those posed by al Qaeda.
"Anbar province is ... an important milestone. It changesthe nature of our security relationship here," he told Reuters.
"(It) does not mean al Qaeda is defeated. What itrepresents is the improving capability of Iraqi security forcesto deal with the threat."
Anbar was once the heartland of the Sunni Arab insurgencyagainst U.S. forces and successive Shi'ite-led administrationsthat took over in Baghdad following the downfall of SaddamHussein, who was from Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community.
Sunni Arab al Qaeda militants also found Anbar to befertile ground for operations.
But in late 2006, Sunni Arab tribal leaders sick of alQaeda's indiscriminate killing of civilians and harsh versionof Islam joined with the U.S. military to largely expel thegroup. Sunni Arab insurgents who sometimes killed dozens ofU.S. troops a month turned their guns on al Qaeda instead.
"One of the significant aspects of this turnover is that itoccurs in a province that was all but written off," said Kelly.
U.S.-led forces have so far transferred security controlfor three Kurdish provinces in the north and six Shi'iteprovinces in the south, all areas which largely escaped theSunni Arab insurgency or bitter sectarian fighting in 2006 and2007.
Anbar was also scene of some of the bloodiest battles inthe more than five-year Iraq war, including two all-outassaults by U.S. forces on the city of Falluja in 2004.
That has left some residents resentful of the U.S.military.
Memories are also fresh of events in the town of Haditha in2005, where U.S. Marines were accused of killing 24 Iraqicivilians. Of eight Marines originally charged, six have wondismissals and a seventh was acquitted at court martial. Theaccused ringleader still faces court martial.
"Haditha is the best example of their crimes," said AnwarAwad, 42, a teacher in the Anbar capital Ramadi.
Added Abdul Naseir Sabri, 34, a government employee inRamadi, said: "I hope this will bring real sovereignty to theprovince and put an end to American interference in ouraffairs."
On the security front, the Anbar model of Sunni Arab tribesforming "Awakening Councils" to work with U.S. forces hasspread to other parts of Iraq and helped sharply cut violence.
"The citizens of this province rejected the terrorists andtheir intrusive extremist ideology," said Sheikh Raad Sabahal-Mukhelif, a member of the Anbar Awakening Council.
But tensions have simmered between Awakening Councilleaders and Iraqi government forces in Anbar. Some councilleaders say not enough of their members are being incorporatedinto the security forces.
There is also anger at the lack of jobs and basic services.
Kelly said U.S. forces would stay at current levels inAnbar for now, but gradually reduce. He did not give details.
"Eventually, we will move into an overwatch posture, awayfrom the population centres," he said.
(Writing by Tim Cocks, Editing by Dean Yates and DominicEvans)