NAJAF, Iraq – The U.S.-led coalition handed over security responsibilities in Iraq's Najaf province to Iraqi forces on Wednesday, a key step in troubled efforts to get the fragile government to stand on its own.
Najaf was the third of Iraq's 18 provinces to come under local control, though U.S.-led forces will remain on standby in case the security situation deteriorates. British troops handed over control of southern Muthana province in July, and the Italian military transferred Dhi Qar province to Iraqis in September.
"If we don't handle the responsibility, history will destroy us," Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, said at a ceremony in a stadium in the city of Najaf, the provincial capital south of Baghdad. He urged former members of Saddam Hussein's army to join Iraq's new military, and said he would do his best to get better equipment for forces nationwide.
The holiest city in Iraq for Shiites, Najaf is home to the iconic Imam Ali shrine near the city's huge cemetery — used by Shiites from throughout the country who come to the city to bury their dead.
It is a relatively peaceful area of Iraq, tightly controlled by police and Shiite guards.
A top U.S. military said Iraqi forces in Najaf would get help if necessary.
"Coalition forces will continue to provide support if called upon," Maj. Gen. Kurt Cichowski said. "We will be quite literally just up the road."
Cichowski said more pilgrims would be able to enjoy religious sites in Najaf, with a safe airport and highways.
"Transferring responsibility is an indication of the increased capacity of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army," he said.
Authorities imposed restrictions on driving in Najaf to ensure security for the handover event. At the ceremony, soldiers paraded around a soccer field, as donkeys pulled carts through the streets outside the stadium.
The U.S.-led coalition wants to hand over control of police and all services to governors in Iraq's 18 provinces, and then pull back to larger bases. If violence developed that local police could not handle, a governor could request help from national police or the Iraqi army. To get coalition forces involved, a governor would need the permission of Iraq's prime minister.
While violence in Najaf is not as bad as other areas, much of it has been directed toward pilgrims. Attacks on houses of worship have stoked tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, especially after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad. The attack set off reprisals against Sunni mosques and clerics.
Najaf was the scene of heavy fighting in 2004 between the U.S. Army and the militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Parts of the Shiite holy city lie in ruins.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, after meeting President Bush last month in Jordan, said the two leaders agreed on the need to speed up the Iraqi takeover of security responsibilities across the country. But questions remain about whether Iraqi forces can handle the task.
Even with U.S. troops leading the battle, the Pentagon reported Monday that attacks on U.S. and Iraqi troops and Iraqi civilians jumped sharply in recent months to the highest level since Iraq regained its sovereignty in June 2004.