ARLINGTON, Va. — Iraqis could take control of Anbar province, once the deadliest place in Iraq, within days, the top U.S. Marine said.
"Now we believe the province could turn over to Iraqi control in just a few days," Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway told reporters Wednesday.
Marine Corps Times first reported Tuesday that the handover was expected next week. CNN then reported that it could happen Sept. 1.
Asked exactly when Iraqis would take control of the province, Conway would only say "soon."
This is not the first time Anbar has been slated to come under Provincial Iraqi Control.
In June, a senior military official said Iraqis would assume control of the province later that month, but the handover was postponed indefinitely.
Officials initially said delay was due to a "sandstorm," but the U.S. commander in Anbar told Stripes that the Iraqis were worried that the Marines would leave the province as soon as it came under Iraqi control.
On Wednesday, Conway said he recently discussed the matter with local Iraqi leaders in the province.
"They said, you know, ‘We got it,’ OK? ‘We can handle all internal threats that now exist in the Anbar province. But we love your Marines and we want you to stay as long as you want to be here.’ … Obviously, we can’t have it both ways," Conway said.
A spokesman for Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, declined to comment on the anticipated handover.
Col. Steven Boylan said the Iraqi government makes announcements on when provinces come under Iraqi control.
"We don’t announce future events, as you know, based on operational security and we would not want to get out in front of the Government of Iraq on these issues," Boylan said in an e-mail Wednesday.
Petraeus is expected to make his recommendations on future U.S. troop levels in Iraq by the end of this month or in early September, Boylan said. Afterward, Petraeus will become head of U.S. Central Command.
Also Wednesday, Conway said the security improvements in Anbar province mean not as many Marines are required to be there.
"I think it should be readily evident that the force that we needed in the Anbar province in 2005, 2006, to fight the insurgency at its height is not the force that we need there now to do nation-building and to try to bring the government and the Sunnis closer together," he said.
Conway said he expected a "natural drawdown" over time of U.S. forces in Anbar province, but he did not give specifics on how many Marines might be withdrawn.
"I’m what they call a Title 10 kind of guy, so those really aren’t my determinations to make, but I do know that 25,000 Marines in the province, again, are probably in excess of the need, especially after Iraqi provincial control," he said.
But the presence of so many Marines in the province is also a source of comfort, Conway said.
"In some ways, 25,000 Marines in the Anbar province for a number of years is a ‘Linus blanket,’ OK? That pretty much says to you that the Anbar province is not going to be a problem," he said.