U.S. hands Najaf to Iraq forces

The Seatle Times

U.S. hands Najaf to Iraq forces

By Saad Sarhan and Omar Fekeiki
The Washington Post

NAJAF, Iraq — The U.S. military pulled hundreds of troops out of the southern city of Najaf yesterday, transferring security duties to Iraqi forces and sticking to a schedule that the United States hopes will allow the withdrawal of tens of thousands of its forces by early spring.

The handover came as Marine F/A-18 jets bombed two bridges near the Syrian border, hitting infrastructure in an area where insurgents have maintained effective control despite off-and-on offensives by U.S. forces. Insurgents have used the bridges to move fighters and arms across the Euphrates River toward Baghdad and other cities, the U.S. military said.

Roadside bombs killed two U.S. service members yesterday — one in Baghdad and one in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar province — the U.S. military said. At least 1,893 U.S. military personnel have died since the war began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Suspected insurgents kidnapped the son of the new governor in Ramadi. Insurgents kidnapped the previous Anbar governor in May and he was killed in a U.S. attack on the house where he was being held.

U.S. Marines have about 5,000 men to cover the province’s 24,000 square miles. American officers in Anbar say the forces are too few to bring the province under control, but U.S. and Iraqi officials say the U.S. raids have helped disrupt the flow of bombs and recruits into the rest of Iraq.

The handover ceremony in Najaf marked the first transfer of an entire city from U.S. to Iraqi military responsibility this year. The raising of the Iraqi flag at a former U.S. base was “pretty much putting the city of Najaf in Iraqi control,” Lt. Col. Steve Boylan, spokesman for the U.S. military, said in Baghdad.

U.S. forces will continue to support Iraqi troops in an advisory role and with logistics, Boylan said.

Najaf has been the scene of relatively few insurgent attacks. In August 2004, U.S. and Iraqi forces here launched a major assault to disarm the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that had staged two uprisings against the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The assault claimed dozens of lives from both sides and ended only when Iraq’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, ordered al-Sadr to rein in his fighters.

Tensions surged again last month when clashes erupted between al-Sadr’s men and Iraqi Interior Ministry forces seen as loyal to a rival Shiite bloc, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Nineteen died in those battles.

Elsewhere, thousands of civilians fled Tal Afar, a predominantly ethnic Turkomen city 260 miles northwest of Baghdad where U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are trying to wrest control from insurgents. The city also sits along a major trade and smuggling route to Syria.

Also yesterday:

Constitution draft final: Iraq’s main Shiite and Sunni Muslim sects abandoned efforts to amend a draft constitution yesterday and a version rejected by many Sunnis will be printed in this form for a referendum Oct. 15. Sunnis, long the dominant political force, fear losing influence to majority Shiites, who were oppressed under Saddam Hussein but now control the government along with Kurds from the north. The Sunni minority could also kill the constitutional draft at the referendum if it can muster a two-thirds majority of no votes in three of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Gas rationed: Partly to ration gas, Iraq, which has the world’s third-largest oil reserves, has ordered half of Baghdad’s cars off the roads starting yesterday, with only cars with license plates ending in an odd number allowed on the streets. At 9 a.m., normally the height of rush hour, streets were almost empty.

Additional information from Reuters and The Associated Press

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