- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2006

Iraq’s new unity government celebrated a milestone yesterday, formally taking over control of security in the southern province of Muthanna from British-led forces — the first region outside the Kurdish-dominated north to be handed over to full Iraqi control since 2003.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who attended the turnover ceremony, called the transfer “a great national day that will be registered in the history of Iraq.”

An international force of about 1,300 British, Australian and Japanese troops has been stationed in Muthanna, one of Iraq’s 18 provinces. The Japanese are returning home, while the other contingents are being redeployed to other parts of southern Iraq.

Despite the transfer, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said at a Capitol Hill hearing yesterday that the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad has six months to curb sectarian violence or risk losing popular support both at home and in the United States.

Mr. Khalilzad told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the formation of Mr. al-Maliki’s unity government, with representatives from Iraq’s Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish populations, was “necessary but not sufficient” to contain the violent insurgency that began shortly after the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.

He said terrorists and insurgent groups increasingly have turned to religion-based violence to undermine the al-Maliki government.

“I think the government has six months to bring sectarian violence under control,” Mr. Khalilzad said in response to questioning by Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat. “If it doesn’t, if the people come to view that their government cannot deal with the violence, then we will have serious problems.”

Mr. Khalilzad said Americans should remain “strategically optimistic” about Iraq’s long-term prospects, despite skeptical questioning from both Democrats and Republicans on the Senate panel.

He said the decision of Sunni Arabs to end their boycott of the government in Baghdad amounted to a “tectonic shift” in the political landscape, finally putting the government on the “right trajectory” toward stability and defeating the insurgency.

But he acknowledged that sectarian violence had increased in Iraq in recent days, and that a highly touted security crackdown by Mr. al-Maliki in Baghdad had not made the capital safer. But Mr. Khalilzad resisted calls by Democratic lawmakers to set a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The American people “are impatient, and they are entitled to be impatient,” the Afghan-born Mr. Khalilzad said. “They want to know that we are heading in the right direction, that we know what we’re doing.”

In Iraq yesterday, a string of car bombings and other attacks left at least 25 persons dead and nearly 50 wounded. U.S. military officials said an American sailor had been killed in action Wednesday in the restive Anbar province, while two U.S. crew members survived when their Apache helicopter crashed southwest of Baghdad.

Mr. al-Maliki will make his first trip to Washington since taking office in May to discuss the security situation, the White House announced yesterday.

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