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Hand-over of security largely ceremonial for U.S. troops

AL KASIK, Iraq—Even as the 3rd Division of the Iraqi army raised its flag and symbolically took control of this community's security during a hand-over ceremony earlier this week, its U.S. military counterpart promised that it wouldn't abandon the division. They'd still fight side by side, the American soldiers assured the Iraqi ones.

"This is one of the most significant days in the history of the new Iraq," were the words that U.S. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, the commander of the Multinational Division, North, used to describe the hand-over before thousands of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers during Monday's ceremony. Then he quickly added that the Iraqi army division's commander "will continue to have the full support of my division and soldiers."

American officials in Washington and Baghdad have touted the importance of giving Iraqi forces responsibility for security as part of the U.S. exit strategy in Iraq. Most recently, President Bush said last week that he wanted to accelerate the process.

But in communities such as al Kasik where hand-overs are happening now, there's been little immediate change for American forces, either in their numbers or duties. Iraq's forces simply are unable or unwilling to shoulder the burden of battling insurgents and militias.

"They are minimally ready to defend the battle space," said U.S. Maj. William Breazele, a member of the 3rd Division Military Transition Team, which advises Iraqi army units. "They need refinements."

That means that even as the Bush administration and Iraq's government say they plan to accelerate the turnover of security responsibilities to Iraqi troops, there are few indications that such hand-overs will bring U.S. troops home sooner.

Despite that, American and Iraqi officials say that rapid change is afoot. In Baghdad, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell, the military's chief spokesman, said Tuesday that Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had agreed during their meeting last week that Iraq would take control of security by next summer.

"I think what you'll find from here is that 2007 is going to be the year of transition. We are going to transition security responsibility to the government of Iraq and their security forces," Caldwell said.

Monday's hand-over ceremony here offered little change for American forces. Outside the hall, two slaughtered sheep lay as part of the traditional sign of celebration. Inside, Iraqi soldiers walked along red foam blocks that served as a red carpet as they accepted gifts for their new role in Iraq.

The program of events prepared for the ceremony made it clear that the two-hour show was, well, a show. The purpose of the pomp and pageantry was to "highlight the theme of Iraqis taking charge of their security," it read.

U.S. officials here called the hand-over a transition, saying the big change was that the 3rd Iraqi army division now will take orders from Iraqi commanders, albeit with American input. They wouldn't say when other changes might take place or when U.S. soldiers might stop conducting combat operations.

"Our goal is to change our day-to-day responsibilities," said Capt. Mark Ford, another member of the military transition team that's working with the 3rd Iraqi division. "It will be gradual."

The administration has said that handing control of security to the Iraqis is a key to eventually handing all of the country to its government. But in some areas in which similar ceremonies have been held the communities have become either bastions for particular sects—and their rogue forces—or embroiled in heavy sectarian battles that required coalition forces to intervene.

In al Kasik, which is about 80 percent Kurdish, U.S. Military Transition Teams have been training Iraq's 3rd army division, also majority Kurd, since July 2004. The 8,500 division soldiers are responsible for an area spanning about 30 miles between Mosul and Tal Afar.

There were signs throughout Monday's ceremony of what the division needed to work on. In speeches, its commanders reminded the soldiers to respect the rights of individuals, not to be sectarian and not to abuse their power.

"I recommend that you treat every civilian with dignity since they are our brothers and sons," said Gen. Abdul Qadar, the commander of Iraqi Ground Forces Command, which is responsible for Iraq's 10 army divisions. With this ceremony, it now commands three of those divisions.

Breazele said the division members were reluctant to operate outside their sects, that Kurdish soldiers wouldn't go into Sunni Arab neighborhoods, for example. But he said he supported staying with the division, that their efforts would collapse if the Iraqi soldiers were left on their own.

"They are anxious to take the lead," he said.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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