July 16, 2008 / 9:06 AM / 11 years ago

Iraq eyes full security control by year-end

* Iraq eyes security control of country by year-end

* Iraq now controls security in more than half its provinces

* U.S. military withdrawing last "surge" brigade from Iraq



By Dean Yates

BAGHDAD, July 16 (Reuters) - Iraq hopes to have security control of all its provinces by the year-end, the national security adviser said on Wednesday, underscoring the government’s growing confidence in its own forces.

Mowaffaq al-Rubaie was speaking at a ceremony where U.S.-led troops transferred security responsibilities for the southern Shi’ite Qadisiya province to Iraqi forces.

The handover puts Baghdad in control of security in 10 of the country’s 18 provinces, all mainly Shi’ite or Kurdish areas.

"We aspire to reach to the 18th province before the end of this year. God willing, all provinces will be under the control of the Iraqi security authorities before the end of this year," Rubaie said in a speech broadcast on state-controlled Iraqiya television from the Qadisiya capital of Diwaniya.

U.S. military officials have been much more cautious about timeframes for handing security control of some of the remaining provinces back, especially in the north and also Baghdad.

Bombers killed around 40 people and wounded scores in several attacks in two northern provinces on Tuesday.

But the growing confidence Iraqi leaders have in handling their own security affairs was shown last week when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki suggested that a timetable be set for the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

The level of U.S. troops is a key issue in November’s presidential election battle between Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama. McCain supports the Bush administration’s current strategy, while Obama wants a timetable for withdrawal.

The U.S. military said on Wednesday the last of five extra combat brigades sent to Iraq in 2007 would finish withdrawing next week. That will bring the so-called "surge" to an end, while leaving 140,000 U.S. troops in the country.

President George W. Bush ordered the deployment to stop Iraq sliding into sectarian civil war. The troop build-up helped cut violence to a four-year low, the military says.



IRAQI FORCES GROW

Lieutenant-General Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. military commander in Iraq, said the handover in Qadisiya was "yet another demonstration by the democratic government of Iraq that it is making progress for providing for all its people."

Bad weather delayed a ceremony due late last month for Iraqi forces to take over security in Qadisiya, which is partly patrolled by Polish troops.

The U.S. military has said bad weather also delayed a security handover last month in Anbar province, a former Sunni Arab insurgent stronghold in the west. Anbar will be the first Sunni Arab province to come under Iraqi security control.

Diwaniya was one of several cities in Iraq’s Shi’ite south that saw fierce fighting between anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army and government forces in late March. It has been largely calm since then.

Iraq’s forces have grown, totalling around 560,000, including army, police and other units. But many units can only function with U.S. military assistance.

In late June, Austin told reporters at the Pentagon "there are no areas that we would be willing to separate out right now to dedicate specifically to the Iraqi security forces."

When provincial security control is handed back in Iraq, U.S.-led forces generally withdraw from major population centres but can be called on to intervene in an emergency.

The Pentagon, however, said in a quarterly report that Iraqi forces could be "mostly self-sufficient by the end of 2008."

(Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim, Khalid al-Ansary, Mohammed Abbas and Tim Cocks, Editing by Jon Boyle)



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