KUT, Iraq – The U.S. military on Wednesday handed over security responsibilities for the southern province of Wasit to Iraqi authorities in a move that signals the growing capabilities of the country's fledgling security forces.
Wasit province is the 13th of Iraq's 18 provinces to return to full government control. Iraqi authorities are now in charge of security throughout the mostly Shiite south of Iraq.
U.S. forces will remain in the mostly Shiite province to assist the Iraqis when needed.
Iraqi National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie lauded Wasit's Iraqi security forces when he addressed the handover ceremony in the provincial capital Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad.
"Security forces in Wasit from the police and army have reached a reliable level of training and skill that they are able to take over security responsibility in the province." he said.
Wasit borders Iran and was a stronghold of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army before U.S.-backed Iraqi forces cracked down on the militia this year.
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, told the handover ceremony that Wasit seven months ago saw a weekly average of up to 18 attacks but now goes for weeks without an incident.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have been jointly seeking to shut down arms smuggling routes from Iran that use Wasit as a transit point before the weapons are taken elsewhere in Iraq. The weapons are thought to be going to Shiite militant groups.
"The security conditions in Wasit province greatly affect the security of Baghdad and many other parts of the country." said Austin. "In the last few years, enemies have attempted to move their weapons and explosives through this province to attack Iraqi security forces and coalition forces in other parts of the country."
The Wasit handover came one day after the government authorized Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reopen negotiations with the United States over the draft of security agreement that would allow U.S. forces to stay in Iraq through 2011.
Critics say the draft does not go far enough in protecting Iraqi sovereignty, and major Shiite politicians argue it stands little chance of approval in parliament in its current form.
The U.S. has suggested it may not be ready to offer more concessions.