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AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — The former general in charge of Anbar, once one of Iraq’s most dangerous provinces, said most of the fighting here is over, and "a couple" of Marine battalions could leave without threatening the stability of the region.

"It is inconceivable to me that al-Qaida would ever get a foothold back here in Anbar. They’re so distrusted by the people," said Maj. Gen. John F. Kelly, who relinquished command of Multi National Force-West on Monday to Maj. Gen. R.T. Tryon during a ceremony at Al Asad Air Base.

Both Kelly and Tryon said any reduction in U.S. forces in western Iraq was not tied to freeing more troops for Afghanistan.

Tryon said he expects the number of Marines in the region to decrease in the next year, but nobody knows what President Barack Obama will decide to do in Iraq.

"There’s a lot of uncertainty with respect to the overarching strategy for the way ahead," he said. "We could be directed to move very quickly. We could be directed to remain a long time. There’s a challenge in planning for that."

Approximately 23,000 U.S. troops, mostly Marines, are stationed throughout the province, which covers most of western Iraq and includes the once-violent cities of Fallujah and Ramadi.

Both generals downplayed the election tensions that have arisen in Anbar since the Jan. 31 provincial vote. Leaders of the Awakening, including Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, threatened to re-form an "armed wing" to contest the election results. They accused a rival party of stuffing ballot boxes and reporting inflated results. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent a representative to calm the brewing crisis, and tempers have reportedly waned.

Kelly said one sheik who questioned the election results called him and, at Kelly’s urging, filed a complaint with election officials — the proper way to handle an election dispute in a democracy, he said. Tryon said more Sunnis voted in this election than in the last one.

That "probably will mean that there will be a voice for stability and security in Anbar which de facto supports our mission here," he said.

When Kelly arrived in Anbar a year ago, there were 38,000 troops in the province and about 40 violent incidents a week. Today, there are three to four attacks a week, down from about 500 a week in early 2007, he said.

Kelly said none of the troop reductions in Anbar province was made so more Marines could be sent to fight in Afghanistan. But as much as 80 percent of the violence in the region was directed at Americans, and as the U.S. has lowered its troop levels the amount of violence has decreased.

The Iraqi police and army are now providing most of the security in the province, he said.

"The biggest thing we’ve provided to the people is a little bit of a safety blanket," he said.

Kelly said the hardest part of his job was convincing Americans and Iraqis that the heavy violence was over.

He ordered Marines to begin reducing their visibility in the province. Iraqi drivers, who had to pull over and get out of their cars when a U.S. convoy passed, were allowed to share the roads with military vehicles. Most U.S. vehicle movement began taking place at night, and he turned Camp Fallujah over to the Iraqis.

"It was the symbol, really, of the American presence. I was hoping to send a message that we’re leaving, we’re starting to pare down the (number of) Americans," Kelly said.

U.S. troops took down 400 checkpoints between February and April 2008 during Operation Rudy Giuliani, named after the former New York City mayor’s effort to curb crime by getting rid of visible signs of criminal activity, like graffiti.

When Marines disassembled one of the largest checkpoints between Ramadi and Fallujah, a thousand Iraqis showed up to watch the barbed wire go down, he said.

"I think that’s when they began to understand, this thing is won," Kelly said.

Tryon said the remaining al-Qaida and anti-coalition forces in the region are getting harder to find because there are so few of them.

"It’s a little like finding that needle in a haystack. That’s harder," he said.


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