U.S. forces will turn over security to Iraqi authorities in the southern Shiite province of Karbala on Monday, the American commander for the area said, despite fighting between rival militia factions that has killed dozens.
Karbala will become only the eighth of Iraq's 18 provinces to revert to Iraqi control, despite President Bush's prediction in January that the Iraqi government would have responsibility for security in all of the provinces by November.
But the target date has slipped repeatedly, highlighting the difficulties in developing Iraqi police forces and the slow pace of economic and political progress in areas still troubled by daily violence.
A bomb struck a mainly Shiite town southeast of Baghdad on Saturday for the second time in less than a week, the deadliest attack on a day in which at least 23 people were killed or found dead.
In northern Iraq, clashes broke out between Al Qaeda in Iraq fighters and a rival Sunni group near the volatile city of Samarra, and police said some 16 militants were killed.
The fighting broke out after calls from imams at local mosques to expel Al Qaeda from the area, labeling them as "false mujahedeens" or false holy warriors, according to a provincial police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced the death of an American soldier killed Thursday during small arms fire during operations in the Salahuddin province, a mainly Sunni area north of Baghdad.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who leads the 3rd Infantry Division, said the Iraqis were ready to assume full control of their own security in Karbala province, home to shrines of two major Shiite saints, Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein. U.S. troops would remain ready to step in if help were needed.
Lynch dismissed concerns about Shiite rivalries in the region, two months after clashes between militiamen battling for power erupted during a major pilgrimage in the provincial capital, also called Karbala, left at least 52 people dead.
"Of course there's violence in the area but not nearly of the magnitude that would cause me to be troubled by it," he told The Associated Press on Saturday.
"This place is about a struggle for power and influence and there are indeed inter-Shia rivalries where different groups are trying to be in charge and sometimes they revert to violence, but it's not at the magnitude that's got me concerned," he said during a visit to a patrol base being constructed in Nahrawan, a Shiite city of 120,000 on the southeastern edge of Baghdad.
Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, has faced several bombings that have killed dozens of people since the Sunni insurgency began in the late summer of 2003, just months after the U.S.-led invasion in March.
It also was the site of one of the boldest and most sophisticated attacks on U.S. soldiers in the war in Iraq, when gunmen driving American SUVs, speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons abducted four U.S. soldiers at the provincial headquarters and later shot them to death. A fifth soldier was killed in the Jan. 20 attack.
More recently, Karbala has been a focal point for rising tensions throughout the mainly Shiite south among rival groups maneuvering for power over the oil-rich area that also profits from religious tourism.
But Lynch, who commands a volatile mix of Sunni and Shiite areas south of Baghdad, said the Iraqis were ready to take over.
"They've established a Karbala operations command that works with the Iraqi prime minister, and when security problems arise it's the Iraqi solution to the problem, not the coalition solution to the problem," he said.
The provincial police chief, Brig. Gen. Raed Shakir, said more than 10,000 Iraqi security forces were "fully prepared" to maintain order.
"During the past days, our forces were able to confront and chase armed groups without the help of the multinational forces. We were able to restore security by our own. This shows that we can work independently from the multinational forces," he said.
In January, Bush announced his new strategy for stabilizing Iraq and his decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. combat troops to Baghdad and to Anbar province. He, said, at the time, that the Iraqi government "plans to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November." The Pentagon later amended that to next March, and then again to at least next July.
Last year, the relatively peaceful southern provinces of Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Najaf were returned to Iraqi security control. In April, Maysan province in the southeast was the fourth to convert.
In May, the Kurdish regional government assumed security responsibility for the largely peaceful Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq: Dahuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniyah provinces.
Saturday's bombing in Jisr Diyala, 10 miles southeast of Baghdad, struck restaurants near a bus depot during rush hour, killing eight people and wounding 13, police and hospital officials said. A bomb struck the area earlier in the week, also killing eight people.
In another bold attack, gunmen abducted the 27-year-old member of the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party in the northern city of Mosul while he was waiting to have his car repaired. His body was found hours later, and three of the party's guards were ambushed and killed when they arrived to collect it, police said.