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Associated Press/Photo by Alaa al-Marjani

Stable transfer

Iraq | Thanks to improved security, control of the southern province of Babil was ceremoniously handed over to the Iraqi government

Based on greater regional stability, the United States handed over control of an area once known as the "triangle of death" to the Iraqi government Thursday.

The southern province of Babil is the 12th of 18 Iraqi provinces of which the Iraqi government has assumed responsibility, and is a harbinger of improving security. U.S. forces will remain in the province to assist the Iraqis when needed.

At the province's transfer ceremony, held Thursday near the ruins of the ancient city of Babylon, Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, marveled at the progress.

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"Just a year ago this province was experiencing well over 20 attacks per week," he said. "And today attacks are down well over 80 percent. This is truly remarkable."

But Austin cautioned that "while the enemies of Iraq are down, they are not necessarily defeated."

Violence in Iraq is at a four-year low. However, a car bomb exploded in Baghdad Thursday, killing 11, but the target, the government's labor minister, escaped unscathed.

With Babil's handover to the Iraqi government, 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 transferred to Iraqi authorities on Oct. 29, 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 Baghdad and surrounding areas.

Salim al-Musilmawi, Babil's provincial governor, credited the downturn in violence to tribal leaders and Sunnis who turned against al-Qaida in Iraq in a U.S.-funded revolt.

"Today's security handover is the fruit of the victory over al-Qaida," he said at the ceremony, which included a brass band, marching army squadrons, and a simulated riot response by an armored police unit.

Concurrently, Iraq's Cabinet decided earlier this week to ask the United States for changes in a draft agreement that would keep the U.S. military here for three more years, as Shiite lawmakers warned the deal stood little chance of approval in its current form.

The Iraqi government faced pressure from both sides on Thursday.

Britain called for the speedy completion of deals with it and the United States, whose U.N. mandates-and legal basis-for a military presence in Iraq expire on Dec. 31.

Provincial elections, which the United States hopes will promote national stability and independence, are slated for Jan. 31, 2009.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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