BAGHDAD â€” When it comes to peace and stability in Iraq, there may be no greater obstacle to success than Anbar province, a vast region of desert and scrubland stretching west from Baghdad.
A huge sandy expanse dissected by a major highway, an oil pipeline and the Euphrates River, Anbar has been the bane of US forces almost since they arrived, with its Sunni Arab people virulently opposed to the presence of foreign troops.
Despite a small, tribal population, the lawless province is the deadliest in Iraq and the heart of the insurgency hammering at the country.
Of the 1,630 US troops who have died since the war began, more than 500 have lost their lives in Anbar, a higher toll than in any other area of the country, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military deaths.
The province, which includes the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, a stronghold of the Sunni Arab-led insurgency, is so dangerous that no journalists venture there unless escorted by US forces. Even many Iraqis are too scared to go. Masked insurgents frequently parade through the streets of Ramadi, and other towns in the Euphrates valley, showing off rocket-propelled grenade launchers and assault rifles.
Some have set up checkpoints on roads near the highway, which runs from Jordan to Baghdad, and ambushed convoys of trucks bringing in supplies. Scores of Jordanian truck drivers have been killed, including one who had his eyes ripped out.
For US forces, and the Iraqi troops they are training to take over security, Anbar has two major drawbacks: Its sheer size makes it incredibly difficult to police, and its population is notoriously hard to win over â€” a fact that presented problems even for Saddam Hussein when he was in power.
Geographically, the province is a huge challenge.
Covering a third of Iraq, an area the size of the US state of North Carolina, or three times the size of Belgium, Anbar reaches to Syria, Jordan and Saudia Arabia, where there are more than 800 kilometres of essentially open borders.
The vast majority of Anbar’s one million people â€” a fraction of Iraq’s 26 million population â€” lives in the Euphrates valley, whose islands, lakes and palm groves provide a good hideout for guerrillas but make military offensives hard.
The rest of the province is bedouin-populated desert, but US forces still have to patrol it to ensure weapons and people are not smuggled in, particularly across the Syrian frontier. â€œThere’s no doubt that Anbar presents a lot of problems,â€ said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Boylan, a US military spokesman. â€œBut it’s just one of four provinces that are challenging.â€
Most commentators trace Anbar’s virulent anti-Americanism to April 2003, when US soldiers opened fire on a group of Iraqi protesters in Fallujah, killing more than a dozen people.
Witnesses said the protesters, who were demonstrating against the occupation of a school by US troops, were unarmed. Either way, the deaths sparked deep-seated outrage.
â€œNow, all preachers of Fallujah mosques and all youths… are organising martyr operations against the American occupiers,â€ one resident said that day, using a term to describe suicide attacks, a comment that has since become horribly prophetic.
In March 2004, Fallujah residents showed the depths of their animosity when they attacked a vehicle carrying four US bodyguards, dragged their burned and mutilated bodies through the streets and then strung one from a bridge.
Since then, US forces have conducted two major offensives against Fallujah, known as the city of mosques in Iraq, but still the population presents problems, even if it is less militant than it once was. Ramadi remains as rebellious as ever.
Two more large-scale anti-insurgent offensives were carried out in the Euphrates valley last month.
Yet throughout the province, which is 90 per cent Sunni Arab, there is little sign of any softening towards the US military.