BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq hopes to have security control of all its provinces by the year-end, the national security adviser said on Wednesday, underscoring the government’s growing confidence in its own forces.
Mowaffaq al-Rubaie was speaking at a ceremony where U.S.-led troops transferred security responsibilities for southern Shi’ite Qadisiya province to Iraqi forces.
The handover puts Baghdad in control of security in 10 of the country’s 18 provinces, all mainly Shi’ite or Kurdish areas. “We aspire to reach to the 18th province before the end of this year. God willing all provinces will be under the control of the Iraqi security authorities before the end of this year,” Rubaie said in a speech broadcast on state-controlled Iraqiya television from the Qadisiya capital of Diwaniya.
The growing confidence Iraqi leaders have in handling their own security affairs has been partly reflected in suggestions by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that a timetable be set for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
The level of U.S. troops is a key issue in November’s presidential election battle between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. McCain supports the Bush administration’s current strategy, while Obama wants a timetable for withdrawal.
Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. military commander in Iraq, said the handover in Qadisiya was “yet another demonstration by the democratic government of Iraq that it is making progress for providing for all its people”. Bad weather delayed a ceremony due late last month for Iraqi forces to take over security in Qadisiya.
The U.S. military has said bad weather also delayed a security handover last month in Anbar province, a former Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold in the west. Anbar will be the first Sunni Arab province to come under Iraqi security control.
Diwaniya was one of several cities in Iraq’s Shi’ite south that saw fierce fighting between anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army and government forces in late March. It has been largely calm since then.
Fighting flared across southern Iraq after the government ordered a crackdown on Shi’ite militias in the oil hub of Basra.
Iraq’s forces have grown, totalling around 560,000, including army, police and other units. But many units can only function with U.S. military assistance.
In late June, Austin told reporters at the Pentagon “there are no areas that we would be willing to separate out right now to dedicate specifically to the Iraqi security forces”.
When provincial security control is handed back in Iraq, U.S.-led forces generally withdraw from major population centres but can be called on to intervene in an emergency.
The Pentagon, however, said in a quarterly report that Iraqi forces could be “mostly self-sufficient by the end of 2008”.
Violence across Iraq has fallen to a four-year low, although some provinces north of Baghdad are plagued by major attacks that have been largely blamed on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
Bombers killed around 40 people and wounded scores in several attacks in northern Iraq on Tuesday.
Iraqi security forces are poised to launch a major crackdown in Diyala, the Interior Ministry said on Sunday.