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Monday, November 3, 2008

Iraq has taken charge in 13 of 18 provinces

BAGHDAD — Iraq now has responsibility for security in two-thirds of the country.

Officials said Iraq has assumed security control in 13 of the 18 provinces in the nation, Middle East Newsline reported. They said the latest province was that of Wasit in southern Iraq and deemed a stronghold of Iranian-sponsored Shi'ite militias.

"Iraqi people and the Iraqi government are now in the lead in that province," Brig. Gen. David Perkins, a U.S. military spokesman, said.

Perkins said the transfer of security responsibility in Wasit took place on Oct. 29. He said U.S.-led coalition forces would continue to help in military operations in the province.

"And as you well know, the other 12 provinces, after they have gone through the transfer of authority to the Iraqi government and the provincial government, have really been great models of success," Perkins said.

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In all, more than two-thirds of Iraq has been transferred to the security authority of the Baghdad government. Officials said this included the entire Shi'ite-dominated south, including the Babil province, relayed to the Iraqi government on Oct. 23.

"The national and local government now has responsibility for security and governance in all of southern Iraq," U.S. Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said. "It is our hope that Iraqis can take charge of security for the final five provinces in the coming months."

Officials said U.S. State Department personnel would remain in Wasit to oversee reconstruction efforts. They said the remaining five provinces — Baghdad, Diyala, Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salah Eddin — were deemed the most dangerous in Iraq and would be handed over in 2009.

"The remaining provinces are particularly challenging, but with each passing day, the Iraqi army and police are growing in capacity, capability and confidence," Morrell said. "Our forces are working hard to help the Iraqi government recruit, train and equip security forces that can one day protect all Iraqis from internal and external threats."

Lt. Col. Amy Hannah, a Multi-National Force-Iraq spokeswoman, said the coalition would continue to be based at Multi-National Division-Center in Wasit. Ms. Hannah said the center, operated by the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division, has maintained 2,200 combat and support troops in the province and could be summoned by Wasit's governor.

"We are working together to provide the security needed for the stability and prosperity Iraqis need to move forward in their lives," Ms. Hannah said.

The Iraqi government has been building its army and police in the south. In Wasit, more than 13,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers have been stationed in the province. In 2005, Wasit contained fewer than 1,500 soldiers.

Iraqi and U.S. forces have stepped up operations against Iranian-backed militias in several Iraqi provinces. On Oct. 30, the forces captured in Maysan a suspected financier of the so-called Hizbullah Brigades, trained by the Iranian-sponsored Hizbullah in both Iraq and Lebanon.

"As we have always said, Al Qaida and other terrorist groups here have been dealt a serious blow by Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi people and coalition forces, but they are still a dangerous element," Ms. Hannah said.

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