(Kim Gamel ~ Associated Press)
Karbala will become only the eighth of Iraq's 18 provinces to revert to Iraqi control, even though President Bush predicted in January that the Iraqi government would have responsibility for security in all of the provinces by November.
But the target date has slipped repeatedly, highlighting the difficulties in developing Iraqi police forces and the slow pace of economic and political progress in areas still troubled by daily violence.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who leads the 3rd Infantry Division, said the Iraqis were ready to assume full control of their own security in Karbala province, home to shrines of two major Shiite saints, Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein. U.S. troops would remain ready to step in if help were needed.
Lynch dismissed concerns about Shiite rivalries in the region, two months after clashes between militiamen battling for power erupted during a major pilgrimage in the provincial capital, also called Karbala, left at least 52 people dead.
"Of course there's violence in the area, but not nearly of the magnitude that would cause me to be troubled by it," he said Saturday.
"This place is about a struggle for power and influence and there are indeed inter-Shia rivalries where different groups are trying to be in charge and sometimes they revert to violence, but it's not at the magnitude that's got me concerned," he said during a visit to a patrol base being constructed in Nahrawan, a Shiite city of 120,000 on the southeastern edge of Baghdad.
Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, has faced several bombings that have killed dozens of people since the Sunni insurgency began in the late summer of 2003, just months after the U.S.-led invasion in March.
It also was the site of one of the boldest and most sophisticated attacks on U.S. soldiers in the war in Iraq, when gunmen driving American sport utility vehicles, speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons abducted four U.S. soldiers at the provincial headquarters and later shot them to death. A fifth soldier was killed in the Jan. 20 attack.
More recently, Karbala has been a focal point for rising tensions throughout the mainly Shiite south among rival groups maneuvering for power over the oil-rich area that also profits from religious tourism.
But Lynch, who commands a volatile mix of Sunni and Shiite areas south of Baghdad, said the Iraqis were ready to take over.
"They've established a Karbala operations command that works with the Iraqi prime minister, and when security problems arise it's the Iraqi solution to the problem, not the coalition solution to the problem," he said.
The provincial police chief, Brig. Gen. Raed Shakir, said more than 10,000 Iraqi security forces were "fully prepared" to maintain order.
"During the past days, our forces were able to confront and chase armed groups without the help of the multinational forces. We were able to restore security by our own. This shows that we can work independently from the multinational forces," he said.