Iraq hopes to have control over security across the country by the end of the year, national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie said Wednesday, as U.S.-led forces handed over responsibility for the southern province of Qadisiya to local authorities.
Rubaie’s comments reflect the Iraqi government’s growing confidence in its security forces since they carried out a string of operations this year to assert authority over parts of the country that had been in the hands of Sunni Arab and Shiite Muslim militants.
The government is pressing U.S. officials for a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces.
“We will be very joyous when the last foreign soldier leaves Iraq,” Rubaie said at a ceremony marking the handoff in Diwaniya, the provincial capital. “And we will tell them thank you for liberating Iraq and for supporting our forces in achieving stability.”
The handoff comes at a time when the number of attacks nationwide has dropped to its lowest level since 2004, according to U.S. military statistics. Still, bombings in central and northern Iraq in recent months have underscored the persistent threat posed by insurgents.
A car bomb exploded Wednesday near a crowded market in the northern city of Tall Afar, killing at least 15 people and injuring more than 90, police and the U.S. military said. The military blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq, a mostly homegrown Sunni Arab militant group that U.S. commanders say is foreign-led.
Another car bomb exploded in nearby Mosul, killing two people and injuring eight, police said.
The U.S. military also announced the deaths of two service members: a soldier killed Tuesday by a bomb rigged to a house in Diyala province and a Marine killed in combat Monday in Anbar province. At least 4,121 U.S. troops have been killed since the start of the Iraq war five years ago, according to the independent website icasualties.org.
Qadisiya, a mostly Shiite area south of Baghdad, is the 10th province to revert to government control since U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003. Iraq has 18 provinces.
“We hope that all Iraqi provinces will regain their security files by year’s end,” Rubaie said. “Security hasn’t been better in the last five years in Iraq. The country has escaped the threat of civil war, which is what our enemies were hoping for.”
Qadisiya had been beset by fighting between rival Shiite factions, and the transfer of security control had been postponed at least three times since last year, most recently because of bad weather. The province’s governor and acting police chief were killed in August when a bomb ripped through their motorcade.
The governor was a member of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest Shiite political party in the national government, and on the provincial council. Suspicion of responsibility for his death fell on followers of populist Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, who have clashed with Iraqi and Polish forces in the province.
Sadr’s representatives denied responsibility for the attack, which they denounced. Residents believe that some fighters who claimed allegiance to the cleric’s Mahdi Army militia have formed their own groups as cover for criminal activities.
Violence flared again in March, when Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government began a crackdown against Shiite militiamen in the southern port city of Basra, prompting reprisal attacks by Sadr’s followers in Qadisiya and across the largely Shiite south. Those clashes quickly subsided when Sadr ordered his forces to stand down. Since then, there has been no major violence in the province.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said authorities in Qadisiya had made strides in improving security.
“Today, Qadisiya embarks on a new era,” Austin said as he signed over responsibility for the province to Gov. Hamid Khudhari.
But security forces were taking no chances. A daylong driving ban was imposed in the city, and Polish helicopters circled overhead.
Iraqi security forces showed off their skills before a crowd of officials and tribal and religious leaders in a street blocked off for the event. They demonstrated how they would take control of a bus that had been seized by insurgents, then clambered on top of one another to form a human pyramid with an Iraqi flag held at the top. “Long live Iraq!” they shouted from their pyramid.
The provinces that have reverted to Iraqi control have been in the more peaceful south and the north’s largely autonomous Kurdish region.
The transfer of responsibility in Anbar, a former insurgent bastion west of Baghdad, was postponed last month. U.S. officials blamed the delay on the weather, saying sandstorms would have prevented them from flying in dignitaries.
Special correspondent Fakhrildeen reported from Diwaniya and Times staff writer Zavis from Baghdad. Special correspondents in Hillah and Mosul contributed to this report.