BAGHDAD, Iraq – Italy formally handed over security responsibility of the southern Dhi Qar province to Iraqi forces Thursday, making it the second of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed over to local control.
In scattered violence around the country, more than 15 people were killed including six policemen whose western Baghdad station was hit with mortar and gunfire. More mutilated bodies were found, the apparent victims of death squads, and the U.S. command said one American soldier was killed when a bomb exploded next to his vehicle in the north of the capital the day before.
In a formal ceremony in Dhi Qar's capital of Nasiriyah, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki thanked Italian Defense Minister Arturo Parisi for his country's help in the province.
The overall U.S. strategy calls for coalition forces to redeploy to larger bases and let Iraqis become responsible for their security in specific regions. The larger bases can act in a support or reserve role. A final stage would involve the drawdown of troops from Iraq.
With the handover, Iraqis will now be responsible for security in the province, calling in coalition troops only when they are needed for support.
Italy's force of some 1,600 troops is now expected to be mostly withdrawn by the year's end.
Italy's military has reported 32 deaths in Iraq, including 19 killed in the bombing of a military barracks on November 12, 2003. Only hours before the handover ceremony, another Italian soldier died in an accident in southern Iraq, the Italian defense ministry said.
Al-Maliki has said that Iraqi army and police plan to take over security for all of Iraq's provinces within the next 18 months. British troops handed over control of southern Muthana province in July.
"It is a great day, it holds the message of the future handover of security control in all of Iraq," al-Maliki said.
In a joint statement, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, lauded the handover as "another sign of progress toward a stable and secure Iraq."
The U.N. Assistance Mission in Iraq's Human Rights office warned Wednesday, however, that the number of Iraqi civilians killed in July and August hit 6,599, a record high number that is far greater than initial estimates had suggested and points to the grave sectarian crisis gripping the country.
It offered a grim assessment across a range of indicators, reporting worrying evidence of torture, unlawful detentions, the growth of sectarian militias and death squads, and a rise in "honor killings" of women.
On Thursday in downtown Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, parts of another two mutilated bodies were found.
One was decapitated with its hands and legs chopped off but could still be identified by family members, said Police Lt. Mohammed Ismail said, without identifying the victim.
A severed head belonging to Ahmed Kamel, also known as Munem Abu Shaiba was found the previous day, Ismail said. Kamel was wanted by American forces for suspected insurgent activity.
The bodies of three men and one woman were found shot to death in a minibus in Baghdad, while two more corpses with bullet wounds were found on the roof of a house, police said.
Four employees of a government-owned company were kidnapped by eight armed men in three cars in the commercial heart of the capital, police 1st Lt. Mahmoud Khayyoun. Further details were not immediately available.
Meanwhile, armed assailants robbed the Rafidain Bank in Baghdad, seizing an undetermined amount of cash and wounding the bank manager, Khayyoun said.
Witnesses said the men were dressed as Iraqi soldiers and arrived in three pickup trucks. Two or three walked into the bank calmly then around five people walked out, including one in civilian clothes, carrying bags. No shots were heard.
In violence around the country a joint American and Iraqi patrol clashed with forces loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad, in a raid to arrest a Mahdi Army leader, police said.
Two Iraqi soldiers were wounded and four injured, said police Capt. Abbas al-Bayati. An Iraqi armored personnel vehicle and a U.S. Humvee were damaged, but there were no immediate reports of American casualties, al-Bayati said.
Al-Bayati said he was still trying to confirm whether there were any Mahdi Army dead or wounded.
In the attack on the Baghdad police station in the Khadra neighborhood, assailants first fired a mortar at the building then drove up in four cars and opened fire with machine guns, said police 1st Lt. Maitham Abdel-Razaq.
In addition to the six policemen killed, one more was injured, he said.
Four civilians were also killed and five wounded in a mortar attack on a residential area in the Dora neighborhood in the city's south, while two more civilians and six more injured when a parked car bomb exploded in the northeast, police said.
Two people were killed and another nine injured when a car bomb exploded near an electricity office in Baghdad, police said. The bomb placed in a parked car exploded just before 9 a.m. (0700 GMT) in the Hurriya neighborhood of the capital, police 1st Lt. Thaer Mahmoud said.
A policeman was killed in the northern city of Mosul in a morning drive-by shooting, while another policeman was killed and one more injured when a police car was fired upon by unknown assailants in downtown Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, authorities said.
In other news, Iraq's Central Criminal Court said it had convicted 35 suspected insurgents on a wide variety of crimes from Sept. 1 to 7, including a man captured wearing a vest of plastic explosives and ball bearings who was handed down a life sentence.
To date, the central court has held 1,484 trials of people suspected of anti-Iraqi and anti-coalition activity, resulting in 1,287 convictions with sentences up to death.