In 2006, there were 1,129 insurgent attacks in Anbar; this year there have been 333. The provincial police force, nonexistent five years ago, employs 32,000 officers.
Those numbers are cited by the Americans now leaving Iraq as cause for optimism. But the Iraqis who will stay in Anbar have been taking a darker view of 2012 — wondering whether the province is in the clear or merely in the eye of a storm.
A stark, scrubby expanse of territory populated almost entirely by Iraqi Sunnis, Anbar makes up a third of the country’s land area and houses 5 percent of its population. In 2004, the searing battles of Fallujah followed the killing and mutilation of four civilian contractors. Al-Qaeda in Iraq flourished in Anbar in 2005 and 2006, until tribal leaders and the U.S. military formed the Sunni Awakening to suffocate the terrorist insurgency.
Lt. Col. David S. Doyle first set foot in Anbar more than eight years ago. As he finished packing up his office at Al Asad late last month, he described the progress made in shifting responsibility for training Iraqi forces from the United States to the Iraqis themselves.
“We got to the point where U.S. trainers were stepping further away,” said Doyle, commanding officer of the departing battalion, part of the 2nd Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division. “The Iraqi training is now self-sustaining, and their army is moving slowly away from policing functions. The next barometer is how the police do out here.”
But high-ranking U.S. and Iraqi officials admit that the police force has a long way to go and that running the development program will be more challenging under the State Department, which is allotting fewer than 200 advisers based at three sites to stay in touch with 18 provinces.
Despite the reduction in violence over the past five years, recent tremors have shaken Anbar’s confidence. Last month, gunmen massacred 22 pilgrims in western Anbar and insurgents assaulted a government compound in the provincial capital of Ramadi. Last Monday, men dressed as officers stormed a police station in al-Baghdadi, detonated bombs, took hostages and kept authorities at bay for three hours.
“The Iraqi police and army forces are in dire need of aid from the U.S.,” said Eifan al-Issawi, head of the provincial committee of security and defense. Ongoing training is “not enough. We need continuous support for our forces because al-Qaeda is not an easy enemy and should not be taken lightly.”