Reuters- The U.S. military handed over Iraq's Anbar province to Iraqi security forces on Monday, less than two years after it almost lost the western region to a Sunni Arab insurgency.
"We are in the last ten yards of this terrible fight. The goal is very near," Major-General John Kelly, commander of U.S. forces in Anbar, told U.S., Iraqi and tribal officials gathered near Anbar's government headquarters.
"Your lives and the lives of your children depend on victory."
Kelly and Anbar Governor Mamun Sami Rasheed embraced after signing a document making Anbar the 11th of Iraq's 18 provinces, and the first Sunni Arab province, to be returned to Iraqi control since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
"We faced al Qaeda and we paid dearly for this with our lives," Rasheed said. "Blood is spread over this great land."
Police marched down a main street carrying Iraqi flags, followed by a parade of police vehicles trimmed with flowers.
The handover in Anbar had been slated for June but was delayed due to a row between local political leaders.
Lt. Colonel Chris Hughes, spokesman for U.S. Marines in western Iraq, said the handover was largely ceremonial since Iraqi forces had been working independently for several months.
Anbar, with little oil wealth but strategic importance from its borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, was once a haven for Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and the scene of fierce battles against U.S. forces and Iraq's Shi'ite-led government.
Some of the bloodiest fights in more than five years of war have taken place in Anbar, including two devastating assaults by U.S. forces on the city of Falluja in 2004.
The first of those is thought to have killed hundreds of civilians and the second left many parts of the city in ruins.
Key parts of Anbar were once in the grip of al Qaeda.