NAJAF, Iraq – The U.S. Army handed over its base in Najaf on Tuesday, giving Iraqis full control of the city as a first step in transferring security across the country so multinational forces can begin to go home someday.
Lt. Col. James Oliver, the U.S. commander of Forward Operating Base Hotel, handed the ceremonial keys to the installation to the new Iraqi commander, Col. Saadi Salih al-Maliky. About 1,500 Iraqi soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 1st Brigade, 8th Division marched by.
Before the ceremony, the Iraqi soldiers, all Shiites, chanted "long live Sistani," referring to top cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and "Saddam is a coward."
U.S. forces have relocated to another base farther outside the city so they would be available to assist in a major security crisis.
Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is the holiest city in Iraq for Shiite Muslims and was the scene of heavy fighting last year between the U.S. Army and the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
The fighting ended following a truce mediated by the city”s Shiite clerical hierarchy, which wields considerable power behind the scenes in the current Shiite-dominated national government.
The U.S.-led coalition plans to hand over control of other cities to the Iraqis, gradually reducing its security profile. If all goes according to plan, this would enable the United States and its international partners to begin drawing down their troops next year and focusing on the insurgency-ridden Sunni Arab areas to the north.
"This is indeed a very important day for the province of Najaf," said Brig. Gen. Augustus L. Collins, commander of the 155th Brigade Combat Team. "It gives me great pleasure to say the Iraqi army in Najaf can control the area. Although we are transferring authority at this FOB (forward operating base), we will still be here to help the people of Najaf."
Oliver said the transfer was a "visible sign that the people of Najaf have rejected violence and have trust in their elected government."
"This is only the beginning for Najaf," he said. "The Iraqi army is operating successfully throughout the region. They are fully independent and capable of responding to all security needs. We are now here in a strictly advisory mode."
Gov. Asaad Sultan Attai thanked the American people "and its army" for ousting Saddam Hussein and for "their assistance since then."