BABYLON, Iraq, (AP) – The U.S. relinquished control of a southern province that includes Sunni areas once known as the “triangle of death,” handing security responsibility to the Iraqi government on Thursday. In the capital, where insurgent attacks continue nearly daily, a car bomber targeted a government minister’s convoy, killing at least 13 people.
Babil is the 12th of 18 Iraqi provinces to be placed under Iraqi control and a sign of the improving security. U.S. forces will remain in the area to assist the Iraqis when needed.
At a transfer ceremony held near the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said security gains have been remarkable — with the number of attacks falling about 80 percent from an average of 20 per week a year ago.
But he cautioned that “while the enemies of Iraq are down, they are not necessarily defeated.”
With Babil’s handover to the Iraqi government, the only province left under U.S. control in southern Iraq is Wasit, a rural desert region that borders Iran and has been a conduit for the smuggling of Iranian-backed Shiite militants and weapons into Iraq.
Wasit will be transferred to Iraqi authorities on Oct. 29, said Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, U.S. commander south of Baghdad.
Other provinces that remain to be handed over are north of the capital, where violence has been slower to decline after insurgents fled security crackdowns in Baghdad and surrounding areas.
Salim al-Musilmawi, Babil’s provincial governor, credited tribal leaders and Sunnis who turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in a U.S.-funded revolt with the downturn in violence.
“Today’s security handover is the fruit of the victory over al-Qaeda,” he said at the ceremony, which included a brass band, marching army squadrons and a simulated riot response by an armored police unit.
In Baghdad, the attacker rammed the car into the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry convoy as it passed through the central Bab al-Sharji area, a ministry spokesman said.
The Shiite minister, Mahmoud Mohammed al-Radhi, escaped unharmed but three of his guards were killed, spokesman Abdullah al-Lami told al-Arabiya TV station.
“It is the latest in a series of criminal acts that are targeting development process in Iraq,” al-Lami said.
At least 10 civilians were killed in addition to the guards, and 21 people were wounded, according to police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.
Smoke and the smell of gunpowder filled the air. Drivers at a nearby intersection sought shelter behind their cars until Iraqi security forces ordered them to evacuate the area.
AP Television News video showed a burned SUV and the charred hulk of the apparent car bomb surrounded by Iraqi security forces. The windows of a nearby camera store were shattered, with torn pictures left among the glass.
The attack highlights the continued security challenges in the capital and other parts of Iraq amid a national debate over the future role of foreign troops in the country.
Iraq’s Cabinet decided earlier this week to ask the United States for changes in a draft agreement that would keep the U.S. military here for three more years, as Shiite lawmakers warned the deal stood little chance of approval as it stands.
The government faced pressure from both sides on Thursday.
Britain called for the speedy completion of deals with it and the United States, whose U.N. mandates — and legal basis — for a military presence in Iraq expire on Dec. 31. Iran, however, urged Iraqis to reject the deal.
Iraqis “are able to provide security in Iraq and block the influence of foreigners,” said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He made the remarks in a meeting with the leader of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, according to his official Web site.
Oates said Tehran was “meddling in Iraq’s politics” and warned that Iran may use proxy groups to affect upcoming provincial elections that the U.S. believes are essential for national reconciliation. The vote is slated to be held by Jan. 31.
“We will see an increase in tension that probably will result in some violence,” Oates said in Babylon, warning that Iran-backed militants may intimidate voters or even assassinate candidates.
“It’s going to be tough enough to make the transition in this election,” he added. “Iran just makes it tougher.”