NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) – Iraqi commanders have taken charge of security in the Shiite holy city of Najaf as its province became the first to be handed over by the US military to its local allies.
Hundreds of Iraqi police and soldiers attended a ceremony in the city’s football stadium at which authority for planning and ordering security operations passed to the provincial governorate.
“Our heroes! Our brothers in the Iraqi police and army!” called Najaf’s Governor Assaad Abu-Gelal. “We need the area to be free of militias so that only the police and army can carry guns. I’m proud of you.”
US commander Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said: “Today marks a historic event for the great country of Iraq.
“The Iraqi police and Iraqi Army can assume overall responsibility for all law enforcement and security activities. This is a terrific success for Iraq, achieved through the policies of the Iraqi government,” he said.
While coalition forces remain ready to support local troops if needed, their commanders now believe day-to-day operations in Najaf can be handled by Iraqis, a small step closer to the end of the US mission in Iraq.
Nevertheless, Brooks promised his Iraqi comrades: “We will be quite literally up the road.”
British and Italian forces have already passed control of two southern provinces to local governors, but Wednesday’s ceremony was the first of its kind in the more volatile US-controlled regions of central Iraq.
More provinces are expected to follow suit in the coming weeks.
“In a few days we shall see a transfer of security in the three provinces of Kurdistan,” Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said in Najaf.
“The government is moving in the correct direction to get full sovereignty. It will keep trying to get responsibility in the hands of Iraqis.”
Najaf’s population is predominantly Shiite and the area has been spared the worst of the sectarian fighting that has blighted the region around Baghdad.
But it is also the home the mausoleum of the Imam Ali, the holiest site in Shiite Islam, and has been the target of some of the most symbolic and dangerous violence of Iraq’s four-year-old conflict.
In August 2003, five months after the US-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime, a car bomb near the shrine killed 83 people, including the powerful Shiite leader Mohammed Bakr Hakim.
The blast was a sign of the mayhem that was to engulf the country as rival militias and insurgent groups battled for supremacy in the post-Saddam era.
In August 2004, US forces fought a pitched battle for more than three weeks with the Mahdi Army, an illegal Shiite militia answering to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose men had seized the town centre.
Sadr was eventually forced to back down, but went on to turn his notoriety into a political and military powerbase. Today, the Pentagon regards the Mahdi Army as the most dangerous faction in Iraq’s sectarian war.
In August this year, as Iraq plunged deeper into bloodshed between Sunni and Shiite factions, a Sunni suicide bomber triggered an explosive vest at a police checkpoint just yards from the shrine, killing 35 people.
Despite the violence, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iraq, Iran and beyond still visit the shrine every year. That most manage to do so in safety has been taken as a good sign by US commanders.
A city-wide curfew was in effect during the handover ceremony, but the US military said it would not be handing over command if it did not think Iraqi forces were ready for the responsibility of maintaining security.
Controversially, Najaf province endorses the use of Shiite “popular committees” to operate a neighbourhood-watch style security programme in various districts, which some see as a threat to government control.