KUT, Iraq (AFP) – Iraq took over from US forces on Wednesday control of the central Shiite province of Wasit, which US commanders say is often used by Iranian groups to smuggle weapons to launch attacks in Iraq.
Wasit became the 13th of Iraq’s 18 provinces to be handed over by US-led forces to Baghdad amid an overall improvement in security across the violence-wracked country.
“We received today the security responsibility of Wasit province,” national security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie said at a ceremony held at a football stadium in the provincial capital of Kut, south of Baghdad.
He said Wasit had achieved a level of efficiency and ability in civil and security affairs.
The transfer comes within a week of nearby Babil province being returned to the Iraqis.
With it, US forces will now retreat to their bases and participate in security operations only at the request of the provincial governor.
Rubaie also announced that “within weeks” Baghdad would take control of the northern oil-rich but ethnically volatile region of Kirkuk and of Salaheddin, the Sunni home province of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
The US military also remains in control of Baghdad, Nineveh and Diyala.
Nineveh and Diyala are Al-Qaeda strongholds where security forces have launched a series of military sweeps targeting the jihadists.
Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the number two commander of US forces in Iraq, said Wasit was once a route for “enemies to move weapons … to attack Iraqi and coalition forces.”
“Till seven months back, Wasit saw 16-18 attacks each week. Now the province frequently has reached zero attacks largely due to high level of cooperation between all security units.”
Wasit has a 200-kilometre (125-mile) border with Iran and the US military has regularly accused Iranian groups of smuggling weapons into Iraq for attacks against its troops.
Dozens of US troops have come under attack in Wasit and nearby regions by explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), fist-sized bombs that cut through the heavy armour of military vehicles.
The military says these bombs are made in Iran and supplied by Iranian groups to Iraqi Shiite extremists. Tehran denies these charges.
Rubaie called for neighbouring countries to “control the borders.”
“Iraq has drawn a new prosperous future for itself after it achieved a victory over Al-Qaeda,” he said.
“Al-Qaeda is returning to regions from where it came. We have alerted the neighbouring countries and the group has already started to act in these countries. So it is not only Iraq’s responsibility to fight the group.”
The swift transfer of some provinces has been facilitated by fall in violence across the country.
A US military surge that began in February 2007, tens of thousands of Sunni men turning against Al-Qaeda and the suspension of militia activities by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have led to the drop in bloodshed.
Washington is keen to transfer all the provinces of Iraq to Baghdad in order to facilitate the withdrawal of its forces.