BAGHDAD — The U.S. military formally handed control over Babil province to Iraqi security forces during a ceremony Thursday morning in the once-violent central state.
The Iraqi army and local police are now responsible for security in 12 of Iraq's 18 provinces, though U.S. forces continue to assist across the country.
A statement by the U.S. Embassy here called Thursday's handover "a positive step on the path to Iraq's self-reliance."
Babil is a mainly Shiite Muslim province, though it includes Sunni Muslim areas that are part of the region once known to U.S. forces as Iraq's "triangle of death." Babil is named for the ruins of ancient Babylon, which are still there today.
Speaking at the ceremony in Hilla, Babil's capital, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said security gains in the province had been astonishing. He added, however, that not all of Iraq's enemies have been defeated.
Iraqi security forces in Babil have been operating largely on their own for several months, the U.S. Embassy said.
Attacks still occur across the province, but far less frequently than a year ago. Babil's governor, Salem al Saleh Meslmawewho, also spoke during the ceremony. He attributed security improvements there to tribal leaders and former Sunni insurgents who've turned against violence to ally with U.S. forces.
"It is our pleasure to celebrate the handover of security responsibility for Babil," said Muwaffaq al Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, who attended the ceremony. "It is evidence that our security forces have reached a level of self-sufficiency and self-reliance."
The first province to take control of its own security after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion was Muthanna, in July 2006. Most recently, the U.S. military relinquished formal responsibility in Anbar province last month.
"We hope to finish the rest of the provinces in the near future, God willing," Rubaie said.
Besides the capital, four ethnically and religiously mixed provinces in northern Iraq remain under day-to-day U.S. control. In the south, Wasit province has yet to be turned over to Iraqi security forces.
In Baghdad on Thursday, just north of Babil, a suicide car bomber who was targeting a government convoy killed at least 13 people and wounded dozens more.
(Reilly reports for the Merced (Calif.) Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this story.)
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