- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2006

BAGHDAD — U.S.-led forces turned over control of Iraq’s military command to the Shi’ite-led government yesterday, a key step toward the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.

But the ceremony in the heavily fortified Green Zone transferred authority only for one of Iraq’s 10 divisions and its small air force and navy, and it was still not clear how quickly Iraqi forces would be prepared to take over security.

A legislative session nearby, meanwhile, degenerated into a shouting match as Sunni Arabs accused the majority Shi’ites of seeking to carve Iraq into sectarian enclaves.

Parliament Speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani interrupted a session after a draft bill submitted by the largest Shi’ite party led to accusations from Sunnis that it was trying to divide Iraq. A live broadcast from parliament was pulled off the air amid acrimonious debate.

Sunni legislator Saleh al-Mutlaq said his people “will not stay in a parliament that leads to the division of Iraq” and threatened to boycott any session that sought to approve such legislation.

The concept of federalism is enshrined in the new Iraqi constitution, and the Kurds in the north already have their own autonomous region. However, special legislation and a referendum would be needed to establish a federation made up of autonomous regions.

Both the north and mainly Shi’ite south are rich in oil, and Sunni Arabs could end up squeezed into Baghdad and western provinces, which have no resources. Many Sunnis fear that federalism will break up the country.

Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki yesterday signed a document taking control of Iraq’s small naval and air forces and the 8th Iraqi army division, based in the south.

“Today is an important milestone, but we still have a way to go,” Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military officer in Iraq, said during the ceremony.

The nine other Iraqi divisions remain under U.S. control, with authority gradually being transferred. U.S. military officials said there was no specific timetable for the transition, but spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said Wednesday that the Iraqis have “talked about perhaps two divisions a month.”

Meanwhile, the government ordered the Arabic satellite network Al Arabiya to shut its Baghdad operations for one month, state television reported. The network said police came to its offices yesterday to enforce the order issued by Mr. al-Maliki’s Cabinet.

Al Arabiya said it did not know why it was being shut down. In July, Mr. al-Maliki warned television stations against broadcasting footage that could undermine the country’s stability.

Attacks across Iraq killed at least 25 persons. In Baghdad, six blasts — including three suicide car bombings — killed at least 17 persons.

The U.S. military command also said two soldiers and a Marine were killed Wednesday in separate incidents.

Separately, al Qaeda’s new leader in Iraq said in an audio recording posted on the Internet yesterday that the country’s Sunni politicians were treacherous and warned of more attacks against the U.S.-led forces.

“The fire has not and will not be put out, and our swords, which have been colored with your blood, are thirsty for more of your rotting heads,” said the speaker, identified in the recording as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.

Al-Muhajir, who became the group’s leader after Abu Musab Zarqawi was killed in June, called on Muslims to unite and asked each insurgent to kill one American in the next 15 days, saying victory was near.

Al-Muhajir, also thought to use the name Abu Ayyub Masri, told Shi’ites to “repent” or face the swords of the mujahedeen holy fighters.

U.S. officials had no comment on the tape. They said there was no reason to doubt its authenticity.

A different tape, a video aired by Al Jazeera television, showed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden meeting what it said were perpetrators of the September 11 attacks.

The Arabic channel said the tape documented the “daily life” of al Qaeda operatives as they trained and prepared in the mountains of Afghanistan. Bin Laden was shown in long white robes walking through rocky terrain with aides carrying rifles.

The television identified two men in the tape as Ramzi Binalshibh, who is in U.S. custody and is suspected of coordinating the September 11 plot, and Abu Hafs al-Masri, a top lieutenant of bin Laden who was killed in a U.S. air strike in Afghanistan in November 2001.

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