KUT, Iraq (AFP) — Iraq on Wednesday took over control from US forces of Wasit province bordering Iran that American commanders charge is used by Iranian groups to smuggle in weapons to launch attacks.
The Shiite province became the 13th of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed over by US-led forces to Baghdad amid an overall improvement in security across the violence-wracked country.
"We have waited a long time for the this moment and after huge efforts and sacrifices from our forces we have restored security to the city and we are proud," Latif Hamid al Tarfa, governor of Wasit, said at a ceremony in the provincial capital of Kut, south of Baghdad.
National security advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie said the province had achieved a level of efficiency and ability in civil and security affairs.
The transfer comes within a week of nearby Babil province being returned to the Iraqis.
Following the handover, US forces are to retreat to their bases and participate in security operations only at the request of the provincial governor.
Rubaie announced that "within weeks" Baghdad would go on to take control of the northern oil-rich but ethnically volatile region of Kirkuk and of Salaheddin, the Sunni home province of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
The US military also remains in control of Baghdad, Nineveh and Diyala.
Nineveh and Diyala are Al-Qaeda strongholds where security forces have launched a series of military sweeps targeting the jihadists.
Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the number two commander of US forces in Iraq, said Wasit was once a route for "enemies to move weapons ... to attack Iraqi and coalition forces."
"Till seven months back, Wasit saw 16 to 18 attacks each week. Now the province frequently has reached zero attacks largely due to high level of cooperation between all security units."
Wasit has a 200-kilometre (125-mile) border with Iran and the US military has regularly accused Iranian groups of smuggling weapons into Iraq for attacks against its troops.
Dozens of US troops have come under attack in Wasit and nearby regions by explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), fist-sized bombs that cut through the heavy armour of military vehicles.
The military says these bombs are made in Iran and supplied by Iranian groups to Iraqi Shiite extremists. Tehran denies the charges.
Rubaie called for neighbouring countries to "control the borders."
"Iraq has drawn a new prosperous future for itself after achieving victory over Al-Qaeda," he said.
"Al-Qaeda is returning to regions from where it came. We have alerted the neighbouring countries and the group has already started to act in these countries. So it is not only Iraq's responsibility to fight the group."
The swift transfer of some provinces has been facilitated by the fall in violence across the country.
A US military surge launched in February 2007, tens of thousands of Sunni men turning against Al-Qaeda, and a suspension of militia activities by anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have all contributed to the drop in bloodshed.
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