WASHINGTON– Iraq’s once-deadly Anbar province could within the next few days become the 11th province to be turned over to Iraqi control, paving the way for a reduced U.S. Marine Corps presence there, the Marine Corps commandant said today.

Gen. James T. Conway told Pentagon reporters the marked drop in violence in Anbar sets the stage for a drawdown of Marine forces that could be freed up for duty in Afghanistan, if needed.

“The change in the al-Anbar province is real and perceptible,” with attacks at an all-time daily low of two to three, Conway said. He cited assessments by Marine Maj. Gen. John Kelly, commander of Multinational Force West, that a reduced U.S. force in the region could keep violence in check.

“Anbar remains a dangerous place, but the ever-growing ability of the Iraqi security forces continues to move us closer to seeing Iraqi control of the province,” he said. Once believed to be “the last [Iraqi province] to turn for the better,” he added, it is expected to return to Iraqi control “in just a few days.”

Conway noted that signs of construction and rebuilding – not violence – were ever-present during his drive through the Anbar cities of Fallujah and Ramadi earlier this summer.

It’s become evident, he said, that “the force we needed in the Anbar province in 2005, 2006 to fight the insurgent at its height is not the force that we need there now to do nation-building and to try to bring the government and the Sunnis closer together.”

Marines deployed to Anbar “are doing a very good job of this nation-building business,” he said, but are more suited to other missions.

“It’s our view that if there is a stiffer fight going someplace else in a much more expeditionary environment where the Marine Air-Ground Task Force really seems to have a true and enduring value, then that’s where we need to be,” he said.

Conway cited increased violence in Afghanistan, where “the Taliban are growing bolder in their tactics and clearly doing their best to exploit security gaps where they exist.”

“Everyone seems to agree that additional forces are the ideal course of action for preventing a Taliban comeback, but just where they’re going to come from is still up for discussion,” he said.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ordered additional Marine forces to Afghanistan earlier this year over concerns about a possible spring offensive. The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, operating in the south, and 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, training Afghan security forces, are slated to return in late November after a one-month extension of their deployment.

Conway called it “a good idea” to backfill the Marines after they redeploy from Afghanistan, but he said the Corps can’t do it without cutting its current commitments in other parts of the world, including Iraq.

“Should our leadership determine that more U.S. forces are needed in the fight in Afghanistan, it’s no secret that the Marine Corps would be proud to be part of that undertaking,” he said. “However, in order to do more in Afghanistan, our Marines have got to see relief elsewhere.”

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