BAGHDAD — American forces handed over security responsibility to the Iraqis Monday in a province that the United States once feared was lost, a sign of the stunning reversal of fortunes since local Sunnis turned against al-Qaida in Iraq.
The handover of Anbar is the first of a province bordering Baghdad, where there has been intense sectarian conflict. The other 10 provinces that have shifted to Iraqi control have been in the less troublesome, heavily Shiite south and in the northern Kurdish region.
But even as Iraqis celebrated the milestone, concerns lingered about a campaign by the Shiite-led central government to halt one of the key reasons Anbar has become safer: the Awakening Councils, groups of former Sunni insurgents who cooperate with U.S. troops.
The Shiite-led government never fully embraced the Sunni turncoats, fearing they might turn their guns on Shiites someday. The government has moved in recent weeks to crack down on such groups, who drew their members from the ranks of former insurgents and veterans of Saddam Hussein's security services.
U.S. and Iraqi officials said Monday that beginning Oct. 1, the Iraqi government will take over responsibility for paying and directing the citizen patrols that operate in and around Baghdad. It was not clear whether the Iraqi government, which is dominated by Shiites, had given the Americans or the Awakening forces assurances about how long, or even whether, it would keep the patrols intact.
More than 100,000 former Sunni insurgents are part of the Awakening movement, which started in Anbar and then spread across Iraq. Each receives about $300 a month from the U.S. government. The handover will involve 54,000 Awakening members.
Shiite officials have recently issued more than 650 arrest warrants for people in areas west of Baghdad to shut the movement down.
"This is how we have been rewarded for bringing back the stability and security?" said Nazar Alqrieshee, an Awakening leader in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.
Nevertheless, the transfer of Anbar, the cradle of the Sunni insurgency and the birthplace of al-Qaida in Iraq, marked a dramatic milestone in the U.S. plan to eventually hand over all 18 provinces to Iraqi control so U.S. troops can go home.
The U.S. military has been reducing the number of American troops in Anbar, to 25,000 from 37,000 in February, and the Iraqi police force has grown to 28,000, up from 5,000 three years ago, according to the Marine Corps. The U.S. troops remaining in Anbar will focus on training Iraq's military and police forces and standing by to help if the Iraqis are unable to cope with any surge in violence.
The ceremony was held under tight security in Ramadi, the provincial capital where American troops fought ferocious battles with al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgents until the tide turned in 2007.
"This war is not quite over, but it's being won and primarily by the people of Anbar," said Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, the senior U.S. commander in Anbar.