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KURDISTAN - MNF Hand Over Command Of Iraqi Forces.

The US-led multinational forces command on Sept. 7 handed over control of Iraq's armed forces to the Baghdad government, a move US officials have hailed as a crucial milestone on the country's difficult road to independence. At a ceremony to mark the event, the top US commander in Iraq, General George Casey, said: "From today forward, the Iraqi military responsibilities will be increasingly conceived and led by Iraqis". Maliki and Casey signed the document which puts the prime minister in direct control of the country's military. Maliki now has complete control over the country's small navy and air force, and of the 8th Iraqi Army Division, based in the south. Maliki said: "The Iraqi Army today is rebuilt again away from sectarian violence".

On Sept. 6, US military spokesman Maj Gen William Caldwell described the ceremony as "a huge, significant event" which was "gigantic" in its significance. Handing over control of the country's security to Iraqi forces is vital to any eventual drawdown of US forces in the country.

After disbanding the remaining Iraqi army following the US-led invasion in 2003, MNF have been training the new Iraqi military. However, it is unclear exactly how quickly Iraqi forces will be able to take over the entire country. Gen Caldwell said: "It's the prime minister's decision how rapidly he wants to move along with assuming control. They can move as rapidly thereafter as they want. I know, conceptually, they've talked about perhaps two divisions a month".

The 8th Division was recently in the centre of a fierce battle between Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militias of Jaysh al-Mahdi loyal to Sadr. The division's troops fought militiamen in the southern city of Diwaniyah, 130 km south of Baghdad, for 12 hours in a battle which left more than 20 soldiers and 60 militiamen dead. Days before the engagement, the division's commander, Brig Gen Othman al-Farhoud, told The Associated Press his forces still needed support from the MNF for things such as medical assistance, storage facilities and air support. When asked how long it would take before his division was self-sufficient, Farhoud said: "In my opinion, it will take time". Politicians have been optimistic.

In a recent meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd who until the northern merger he led the PUK, said fighting in Iraq will have abated by end-2007, and that Iraqi forces will be able to handle any remaining violence. British troops handed over control to Iraqi authorities of the southern Muthanna province in July, and Maliki has said another southern province, Dhi Qar, is to follow this month.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Sep 11, 2006
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