Iraqis to take over security of Karbala from U.S.

BAGHDAD — U.S. forces will turn over security to Iraqi authorities in the southern Shiite province of Karbala on Monday, the American commander for the area said, despite fighting between rival militia factions that has killed dozens.

Karbala will become only the eighth of Iraq’s 18 provinces to revert to Iraqi control, despite President Bush’s prediction in January that the Iraqi government would have responsibility for security in all of the provinces by November.

But the target date has slipped repeatedly, highlighting the difficulties in developing Iraqi police forces and the slow pace of economic and political progress in areas still troubled by daily violence.

Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who leads the 3rd Infantry Division, said the Iraqis were ready to assume full control of their own security in Karbala province, home to shrines of two major Shiite saints, Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein. U.S. troops would remain ready to step in if help were needed.

Lynch dismissed concerns about Shiite rivalries in the region, two months after clashes between militiamen battling for power erupted during a major pilgrimage in the provincial capital, also called Karbala, left at least 52 people dead.

“Of course there’s violence in the area but not nearly of the magnitude that would cause me to be troubled by it,” he told the Associated Press on Saturday.

A bomb struck a mainly Shiite town southeast of Baghdad on Saturday for the second time in less than a week, the deadliest attack on a day in which at least 23 people were killed or found dead.

In northern Iraq, clashes broke out between al-Qaida in Iraq fighters and a rival Sunni group near the volatile city of Samarra, and police said some 16 militants were killed.

The fighting broke out after calls from imams at local mosques to expel al-Qaida from the area, labeling them as “false mujahedeens” or false holy warriors, according to a provincial police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced the death of an American soldier killed Thursday during small-arms fire during operations in the Salahuddin province, a mainly Sunni area north of Baghdad.

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