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Iraq Aims For Full Security Control By Year-End

Iraqi forces are taking on greater responsibilities throughout the country
BAGHDAD -- Iraq hopes to have security control of all its provinces by the end of the year, the national security adviser said on July 16, underscoring the government's growing confidence in its own forces.

Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i was speaking at a ceremony where U.S.-led troops transferred security responsibilities for the southern Shi'ite governorate of Al-Qadisiyah to Iraqi forces.

The handover puts Baghdad in control of security in 10 of the country's 18 governorates, 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," Rubay'i said in a speech broadcast on state-controlled Iraqiyah television from Al-Diwaniyah, the capital of Al-Qadisiyah.

The growing confidence Iraqi leaders have in handling their own security affairs has been partly reflected in suggestions by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki 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.

Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 U.S. military commander in Iraq, said the handover in Al-Qadisiyah 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 Al-Qadisiyah.

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

Al-Diwaniyah was one of several cities in Iraq's Shi'ite south that saw fierce fighting between anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and government forces in late March. It has been largely calm since then.

Fighting flared across southern Iraq after the government ordered a crackdown on Shi'ite militias in the oil hub of Al-Basrah.

Iraq's forces have grown, totaling 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 centers 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."

Violence across Iraq has fallen to a four-year low, although some provinces north of Baghdad are plagued by major attacks that have been largely blamed on Sunni Al-Qaeda.

Bombers killed around 40 people and wounded scores in several attacks in northern Iraq on July 15.

Iraqi security forces are poised to launch a major crackdown in Diyala, the Interior Ministry said on July 13.