RAMADI, Iraq — The U.S. Marines marked the end of nearly seven years in Iraq on Saturday by handing the Iraqi Army their command of Anbar province, once one of the war's fiercest battlefields but now a centerpiece of U.S.-Iraqi cooperation.
The changing of the guard — overseen by military brass and some of Anbar's influential Sunni sheiks — signals the start of an accelerated drawdown of American troops as the U.S. increasingly shifts its focus to the war in Afghanistan.
American commanders are trumpeting security gains in places such as the western Anbar province as a sign that their partnership with Iraqi security forces is working, and that the local troops can keep the country safe.
But fears are growing about a possible resurgence in sectarian tensions — fed by the Shiite-dominated government's plans to blacklist more than 500 parliamentary candidates over suspected links to Saddam Hussein's regime.
In Baghdad, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with Iraq's leaders Saturday to try to alleviate the pressures. While he kept expectations of a breakthrough low — telling reporters after a meeting with President Jalal Talabani it was up to the Iraqis, not him, to resolve the issue — his visit alone underscored Washington's concern.
The White House worries the bans could raise questions over the fairness of the March 7 parliamentary election, which is seen as an important step in the American pullout timetable and a way to break political stalemates over key issues such as dividing Iraq's oil revenue.
The Marines formally handed over U.S. responsibility for Sunni-dominated Anbar, Iraq's largest province, to the Army during a ceremony at a base in Ramadi, the scene of some of the war's most intense fighting. Overall control of the province shifted from the U.S. military to Iraq in September 2008, but the U.S. continues to provide support for Iraqi forces.
Iraqi and American color guards stood together at attention as both countries' national anthems were played by a U.S. military band.
As many as 25,000 Marines were in Iraq at the peak of the fighting, mostly in Anbar province. Fewer than 3,000 remain. All but a handful of those will ship out in a matter of weeks.