- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

NAJAF, Iraq - U.S. forces ceded control of southern Najaf province to Iraqi police and soldiers, who marked the occasion yesterday with a parade and martial-arts demonstrations.

In Baghdad, police found 76 bodies, some of them blindfolded and handcuffed. Many of the victims had been shot, and some showed signs of torture, a police officer said on the condition of anonymity for safety reasons. Also, two suicide car bombings killed at least 19 persons in the capital.

The handover of Najaf came as new Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited Baghdad, seeking advice from top commanders on a new strategy.

Roadside bombs killed two U.S. troops, one in Baghdad and the other southwest of the capital.

Home to 930,000 people, Najaf saw heavy fighting two years ago but has been relatively peaceful lately. It was the third of Iraq’s 18 provinces to come under local control.

British troops handed over southern Muthana province in July, and the Italian military transferred neighboring Dhi Qar in September.

Authorities in Najaf city banned vehicles as provincial and tribal leaders and dignitaries gathered in the dusty, blue bleachers of a soccer stadium for the handover ceremony.

About 1,500 police officers, soldiers and security personnel staged a parade around an infield of stubby brown grass, in festivities complete with warriors on horseback.

At one point, a small group of soldiers bit into a live rabbit and frogs as a traditional display of ferocity for elite troops in Iraq.

Police then steered shiny new cruisers and motorcycles with ribbons and flowers stuck to their windshields around a track ringing the soccer field.

U.S. forces closed their major outpost in the region in September, as the 8th Iraqi Army Division and 6,900 police officers assumed greater responsibility in the province.

U.S. forces will remain on standby in the area in case violence erupts again.

“Every province is important,” Maj. Gen. Kurt Cichowski said. “There’s 15 to go, and we hope we can accomplish that by the end of 2007.”

Critics charge that handing over control here was easy because Najaf is overwhelmingly Shi’ite and has not faced the same level of sectarian violence as religiously mixed areas such as Baghdad.

They also have expressed concern that with the Americans scaling back, the province could become a key staging ground for Shi’ite militias with strong ties to soldiers in the largely Shi’ite army.

“There were the same kind of concerns in Muthana and Dhi Qar, and they’ve done very well,” Gen. Cichowski countered.

Lt. Gen. Nasier Abadi, deputy chief of staff of the Iraqi army, acknowledged that militia groups hold sway among many soldiers, but he said, “They can be weeded out.”

Gen. Abadi, a veteran of Saddam Hussein’s army, said the handover was “important for Iraq because up until now, everybody thinks that the coalition is doing the governing, so now Iraqis need to take over the responsibility.”

Najaf is home to the iconic Imam Ali shrine, where Shi’ites believe the cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad is buried. Millions make pilgrimages to the city annually, and Shi’ites from across Iraq come to bury their dead in the huge cemetery.

The city of Najaf endured heavy fighting in 2004 between the U.S. Army and militiamen loyal to radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and parts of Najaf lie in ruins. Some violence now is aimed at Shi’ite pilgrims.

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