BABYLON, Iraq - The United States relinquished control of a southern province that includes Sunni areas once known as the "triangle of death," handing security responsibility to the Iraqi government on Thursday.
Babil is the 12th of 18 Iraqi provinces to be placed under Iraqi control and a sign of the improving security. U.S. forces will remain in the area to assist the Iraqis when needed.
At a transfer ceremony held near the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, said security gains have been remarkable - with the number of attacks falling about 80 percent from an average of 20 per week a year ago.
With Babil's handover, the only province left under U.S. control in southern Iraq is Wasit, a rural desert region that borders Iran and has been a conduit for the smuggling of Iranian-backed Shiite militants and weapons into Iraq.
Wasit will be transferredon Wednesday, said Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, U.S. commander south of Baghdad.
Other provinces that remain to be handed over are north of the capital, where violence has been slower to decline after insurgents fled security crackdowns in and near Baghdad.
Salim al-Musilmawi, Babil's provincial governor, credited tribal leaders and Sunnis who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq in a U.S.-funded revolt with the downturn in violence.
"Today's security handover is the fruit of the victory over al-Qaida," he said at the ceremony.
The White House on Thursday said the transfer in Babil province was another sign of improving security in Iraq.
"This brings the total to about two-thirds of Iraq that is now being controlled by Iraqis, and we anticipate an additional province will be handed over to them soon, in the near future," White House press secretary Dana Perino said. "The president is appreciative of all the work that our forces have done, but also recognizes that the Iraqis have done a lot of work, too, to get to this point."
Bomber kills 11 in attack on official
A suicide car bomber drove into a Shiite government minister's convoy in the Baghdad morning rush hour on Thursday, killing 11 people and wounding 22, according to Iraqi government and hospital officials. According to the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, the attack left the minister, Mahmoud Mohammed al-Radhi, unhurt but killed his nephew, who was in the minister's security detail. The dead includedfour bodyguards and three police officers, according to a police officer at the scene. The blast left a 12-foot-wide crater and damaged dozens of the photography shops that the area where the attack took place, Tahrir Square, is known for.
New York Times