NAJAF, Iraq – U.S. Marines handed control of Najaf (search) to a Spanish-led multinational force Tuesday after a three-week delay due to a deadly car bombing that raised tensions in the holy city.
A top Shiite Muslim cleric was among at least 85 people killed in the Aug. 29 attack outside the Imam Ali mosque (search), the most sacred Shiite Muslim shrine in Iraq.
In the days that followed, hundreds of armed militiamen from rival Shiite factions took over the city, seeking to impose security in violation of U.S. military orders.
Fearing an explosion of violence, U.S. forces postponed the handover of Najaf to organize and train a special Iraqi police force to protect the shrine.
"Having a multinational force to assist in stabilizing Iraq is the next logical step. The U.S. didn't embark on this mission here alone," Lt. Col. Christopher Woodbridge of the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment (search), told reporters before the transfer ceremony. "It's very positive for the people of Najaf as well, because it demonstrates to them very clearly that the world is willing to help rebuild this country."
Woodbridge said about 200 U.S. military police will assist the Spanish led-force, part of 9,500 multinational troops under Polish command who assumed control of the Najaf area earlier this month.
"You didn't conquer Iraq. You conquered Saddam Hussein and his murderers. You didn't enslave a people. You freed the Iraqi people," Brig. Gen. John Kelly told the Marines, who will be returning to the Unites States after a stopover in Kuwait. "Our nation is proud of what you've done."
For the Iraqis, he had a message of hope.
"We've crushed the tyrant and very soon you'll be having back your own country," he said. "Please do with the freedom that we've given you what we in America, and certainly all of the nations that are standing here today as allies, have done with freedom in our countries."
Spanish Army Brig. Gen. Alfredo Cardona said his troops would help Iraqis live in peace and stability, and would work with Iraq's political and administrative institutions until Iraqis could rule themselves.
"I want to offer my services to the people of Najaf. ... Please trust us," Cardona said.
Najaf's U.S.-backed mayor, Haidar Mahdi Mattar, said "the people of Najaf totally trust the coalition forces and trust their ability, be it military or their ability to rebuild the city."
On the streets of Najaf, however, some disagreed. "The Spaniards are controlled by America. As an Arab, I resent any foreign presence in Iraq, said Razaq al-Henawy, a 51-year-old farmer. Passers-by nodded agreement.
Najaf and other Shiite-dominated cities to the south of Baghdad have remained relatively quiet through the U.S. occupation because religious leaders, by and large, have urged patience and cooperation with the Americans.