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U.S. forces to shift security of Karbala to Iraqis

Times Staff Writer

U.S. military officials said Saturday that they would turn over security for Karbala province south of Baghdad to Iraqi security forces on Monday, marking the eighth of the country’s 18 provinces where Iraqis have assumed control.

The move has been delayed several times as violence has continued to erupt there.

As recently as August, about 50 people were killed in clashes between rival Shiite militias competing for control of the region’s oil resources. The fighting erupted during a pilgrimage commemorating the birth of Mohammed Mahdi, one of Shiite Islam’s 12 most revered imams.

The Shiite pilgrimages are also often a target of Sunni insurgents using suicide bombers and snipers. In January, five U.S. soldiers were killed in Karbala in a raid on a compound by gunmen dressed in U.S. uniforms.

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Still, “it’s to the point where they are going to pull it off,” said Army Master Sgt. Dennis Beebe.

An Iraqi brigade commander said a celebration was planned for Monday at Karbala stadium. Haidar Abadi, a member of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Islamic Dawa Party, said Maliki “thinks that the armed forces are very prepared and up to the responsibility.”

Meanwhile, a bomb killed eight people and injured 13 early Saturday near a stretch of restaurants southeast of Baghdad where day laborers gather and people prepare for the commute into the capital, police said. Two women and two Iraqi police officers were among the wounded.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military announced the death of a soldier who was shot Thursday during an operation in Salahuddin province northwest of Baghdad. No further details were released, and the soldier’s identity was withheld pending notification of next of kin. There have been 3,838 U.S. military personnel killed in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003, according to the website icasualties.org.

An official at Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad said that as many as 150 Iraqi soldiers may have suffered a bout of food poisoning and that 50 of them were taken there for treatment. Army officials have complained in the past that vendors sometimes served substandard food to their forces. Thirty-five of the soldiers were discharged after being treated.

In Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, the commander of the Muqdadiya police force, Col. Amer Nusaif Jassim, and seven of his officers were reported abducted at a checkpoint on the road between Muqdadiya and Baqubah on Saturday morning, the Interior Ministry said.

The U.S. military reported capturing the leader of a splinter group of the Mahdi Army militia that was not honoring Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s pledge of a temporary cease-fire. The group had allegedly been engaged in armor-piercing roadside bombing attacks on U.S. soldiers, kidnapping operations and weapons procurement.

Two other alleged militants were killed in the raid, one of whom was said to be wearing a suicide bombing vest, and 14 others were captured. The U.S. said the cell leader had ties to Iranian intelligence.

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Iraqi police said they found the bodies of four people shot to death on the streets of Baghdad on Saturday.

christian.berthelsen @latimes.com

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Times staff writers Raheem Salman and Wail Alhafith contributed to this report.

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