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U.S. Cedes Last Southern Province To Iraqi Forces

Iraqi soldiers on patrol in Al-Kut.
AL-KUT, Iraq (Reuters) -- U.S. forces have handed over control of the last province south of Baghdad to Iraqi forces, marking a milestone in the transfer of security responsibility to Iraq's government.

Wasit Governorate along the Iranian border was the 13th of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed over by U.S. forces to Iraq. Only the capital Baghdad and four volatile northern provinces are still under U.S. command.

"This is considered a national holiday for Wasit Governorate and its people," Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i, the Iraqi government's security adviser, said at a handover ceremony at a stadium in the provincial capital Kut.

Iraqi soldiers and police paraded around the stadium's running track.

Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. combat forces in Iraq, said the transfer "represents the beginning of a very promising future for the people of Wasit, and it represents a safer and more secure Iraq."

He said the province had experienced 16 to 18 attacks a week just seven months ago, and now frequently went for weeks without no attacks recorded.

Turning over a province to Iraqi control means U.S. forces no longer conduct routine patrols, although they may still be involved in military operations with Iraqi approval.

Wasit Governorate was the scene of fighting during an uprising by followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr in March and April this year, but like other parts of the south has since become largely quiet while al-Sadr's followers observe a cease-fire.

Another southern province, Babil, which includes an area once dubbed the "triangle of death" because of its insurgent presence, was handed over last week.

Violence across Iraq as a whole is at four-year lows, and is now mainly concentrated in four northern provinces where U.S. forces say Sunni Islamist Al-Qaeda fighters are making a stand after being driven from other parts of the country.

Al-Rubay'i said the handover of two of those northern provinces, Kirkuk and Salah Al-Din, would take place "in the coming weeks".

The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and now has about 150,000 troops in the country.