WASHINGTON — U.S. Marines formally end their presence in Iraq's Anbar province Saturday, marking the conclusion of a bloody seven-year battle that claimed hundreds of Marine lives and featured some of the war's fiercest fighting.
In a ceremony Saturday, the Marines will hand over responsibility for Anbar to the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, an Army training unit out of Fort Bragg, N.C. Those soldiers largely will remain on their base in Anbar's capital of Ramadi and focus on training Iraqi troops who lead most patrols.
The number of Marines in Anbar then will drop from the current level of 3,500 to about 180 in March, before all of them are gone in June.
After so much bloodshed, however, the conclusion of the Marines' mission in Iraq sparked barely a whimper as Marine planners focused instead on shifting resources to Afghanistan, where there are roughly 12,000 Marines. Two Marine Expeditionary Units also have been dispatched to Haiti.
What the Marines are leaving behind in Anbar remains unclear.
Marines say they've successfully pacified what had been a violence-ridden province that saw the rise of the insurgency in 2003 and yet was also the birthplace of the reconciliation efforts between U.S. troops and Iraq's disaffected minority Sunni Muslims.
Violence hasn't been eradicated, however. On Thursday, at least eight Iraqis were killed in five bombings throughout the province, raising concerns that security is deteriorating once again for residents.
Fears of violence also have been feed by the decision earlier this month by Iraq's Accountability and Justice Commission to disqualify 500 candidates for the parliamentary elections March 7, many of them leading Sunni politicians.
Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Iraq on Friday for a two-day trip designed in part to address rising tensions in the country.
Marines were among the first U.S. forces to arrive in Baghdad during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and they moved west into Anbar within days. While the Anbaris initially welcomed the U.S. military, the shooting of several children in a field by U.S. Army troops kicked off tensions that lasted for more than four years.
Of the roughly 3,500 U.S. troops who've been killed in combat in Iraq, 1,021 were Marines, according to Pentagon statistics. At their peak in October 2008, there were 27,249 active and reserve Marines in Iraq.
Anbar has been the site of many turning points in the war. In the spring of 2004, four Blackwater contractors were killed and their bodies hung on a bridge in the Anbar city of Fallujah. Shortly afterward, the United States launched the first of two major offensives in an effort to clear Fallujah of insurgent forces.
Insurgents then planted thousands of homemade bombs that took scores of Marine lives. One explosion in November 2005 triggered a Marine response that killed 24 civilians, including women and children, in Haditha.
An outraged Iraqi public demanded retaliation from its nascent government for incidents such as Haditha, and when it didn't happen, some turned to the insurgency, which waged war against the Americans until, tired of threats against them by Islamic extremists, Anbar's tribal leaders turned against them and allied with the Americans.
Today, U.S. troops largely are confined to their bases as Iraqis conduct patrols. The last confirmed Marine combat death in Anbar was recorded on July 19.
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