AT THE beginning of the week, American authorities announced that the United States was handing over control of Iraq's Anbar province to the occupation government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Timed to coincide with the opening of the Republican Party convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, the milestone was deemed to be significant in the flow of the Iraq war because Anbar has been at times a scene of ferocious fighting and killing between U.S. forces and Iraqi insurgents. Its capital, Ramadi, is almost synonymous with violence. It is estimated that a quarter of the more than 4,100 U.S. deaths that have occurred in Iraq took place in Anbar.
It is Iraq's largest province and home to many of the country's Sunnis. For the time being, the Sunnis are cooperating with U.S. occupation forces to some degree, first, because the Americans pay them to, and, second, because they are looking for help to arm and organize themselves for the time when U.S. forces will eventually be gone and they will be left to defend themselves against the predominantly Shiite central government of Iraq, led by Mr. Maliki, and the security forces under its command.
Anbar is considered to be the most anti-foreign of the Iraqi provinces. Perhaps to their credit, its people don't like foreign al-Qaeda fighters much. Nor do they like Americans.
The theoretical handover of this difficult province should be seen as a generally positive development. On the other hand, there is, as usual, more to it than meets the eye.
Anbar is the eleventh of the 18 Iraqi provinces to be handed over to the Maliki government. It could be noted with equal validity that this is a dismal record after more than five years of U.S. occupation. It is also worthy of note that although U.S. troops have handed over general responsibility for peace and quiet in Anbar to the Iraqis, U.S. troops will remain in the province - on bases, in reserve - in case things get out of hand again.
The other positive note regarding the Iraq war that was sounded just prior to the opening of the Republican convention was that tentative agreement has been reached between the United States and the Maliki government on a timetable for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. This is presumably the basis for claims from speakers at the convention, such as Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman on Tuesday night that the Bush Administration had managed the war in such a way that U.S. troops were coming home by the thousands with honor.
This is premature posturing. The task isn't done. Those personnel who have come home have presumably done so at the end of the "surge," the earlier increase of some 30,000 in U.S. troop levels. The withdrawal of the remaining 140,000 is dependent on many factors, including which candidate wins on Nov. 4. To date, the war has cost America more than 4,100 dead, thousands gravely injured, and an estimated $550 billion so far in money that could have been used otherwise at home or not borrowed to finance the war.
Handing over Anbar and the tentative agreement on a withdrawal timetable by 2011 do not constitute victory. Our leaders would be better off declaring that the U.S. has done all it can and is leaving.
In the meantime, Sen. Barack Obama should be closely questioned on what he means by his demand for "responsible" withdrawal from Iraq. The American people want to be finished with this costly foreign adventure, now.