Najaf Province Officially Turned Over to Iraqi Control Today

Najaf Province became the third Iraqi Province out of 18 to be completely turned over to Iraqi security forces in a ceremony at a football stadium earlier today.

Najaf, the capital of the province, is the is home to the iconic Imam Ali shrine.

In October, Iraqi forces successfully provided security for nearly one million Shia pilgrims who thronged to Najaf, Iraq, to commemorate the death of the First Imam. The pilgrimage concluded without incident. It was the second massive gathering in less than two months without incident of violence.

Iraqi security forces celebrate during a handover ceremony in the Shiite city of Najaf. Iraqi soldiers and police have taken charge of security in Najaf and its province, at a colourful and optimistic jamboree. (Qassem Zein/AFP)


Iraqi soldiers celebrate during a handover ceremony in Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad, December 20, 2006. (REUTERS/Ali Abu Shish)
Reuters reported:

NAJAF, Iraq (Reuters) – U.S.-led forces handed over security control of Najaf province, whose capital is seat of Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite clerics, to Iraq on Wednesday, calling it a major step forward in strengthening the government.

Iraqi authorities imposed a vehicle ban in the holy city of Najaf, where the handover ceremony took place in a football stadium amid tight security. Najaf is the third of Iraq’s 18 provinces to be transferred to Iraqi security forces.

“It is a major step forward in improving security and strengthening the authority of the government,” U.S. Major General Kurt Cichowski, who oversaw the transfer of authority, told assembled Iraqi religious and political leaders and soldiers and policemen sitting in the stands…

Naval Lieutenant Michael Marley, a spokesman for the U.S.- led multinational force handing over control, said all but a handful of the U.S. and other troops in the province had pulled back in September and Iraqis were already effectively in charge.

Khaleej Times reported:

With a few major exceptions, Najaf, home to Iraq’s most senior cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, has been spared much of the violence rocking Baghdad and other areas where Shias, Sunni Arabs and ethnic Kurds live side by side.

But it has not been immune to conflict between Shia factions. Its status as a historic centre of Shia scholarship, and consequently political influence, means it will be especially important for the handover to succeed.

The BBC reports that “The UK wants to hand over Basra province in the first half of 2007.”

Previous Articles about Najaf on the Rebound:
Iraq’s Spiritual Leader Calls for Unity & the Disarming of Militias
Najaf Makes a Comeback
Iraqi Clerics Call for a United Democratic IraqA Million Pilgrims Gather in Najaf Without Incident
Another Iraqi Province Will Take Over Security Operations in Days

Update: More good news…
The New York Times is reporting that Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is considering helping moderates form a new political party to help preserve Iraq.

The US Department of Defense has more on the situation in Iraq and Najaf.

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