By Andy Mosher
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
TIKRIT, Iraq, Aug. 8 -- U.S. military commanders on Tuesday handed over to their Iraqi counterparts primary security responsibility for a swath of northern territory extending from the foothills of Iraq's eastern mountains all the way west to the Syrian border.
Visiting U.S. and Iraqi officials hailed the transfer -- which will have no immediate effect on American troop levels in the area -- as a watershed moment in the gradual shift of military duties in Iraq from U.S. forces to this country's nascent army. They also expressed optimism over stepped-up security operations in Baghdad, where military spokesmen announced Tuesday that a new phase of a U.S.-Iraqi crackdown on violence had begun.
Events in the capital and surrounding provinces, however, illustrated how deeply entrenched Iraq's security problems are after 3 1/2 years of war punctuated by nearly six months of intense sectarian violence.
At least 18 people were killed and more than 90 were wounded when two explosions ripped through al-Araby market in the capital's Shorja district, according to hospital workers. And in Diyala province, just east of Baghdad, local officials reported Tuesday night that a wave of killings, apparently sectarian in nature, had claimed at least 29 lives over the course of the day.
At Forward Operating Base Dagger, a U.S.-Iraqi military installation on the outskirts of Tikrit, the Iraqi army's 4th Division was given the lead security role in Salahuddin, Nineveh and Tamim provinces. In a festive ceremony held in the marble-lined main hall of a palace built by Saddam Hussein, the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division handed off what commanders described as primary responsibility for coordinating, planning and conducting security operations in the three-province area.
Five of the Iraqi army's 10 divisions now have primary responsibility for security in their areas, and FOB Dagger becomes the 48th of 110 U.S. bases handed over to Iraqi control.
"Half of the Iraqi army is now under control of Iraqis," said the country's national security adviser, Mowaffak al-Rubaie. "We believe they will be much more competent in fighting terrorism. We know our way around."
Thousands of American troops will remain in the area, including about 9,000 at Camp Speicher, a larger base near Tikrit. Rubaie acknowledged that Iraqi forces will depend heavily on U.S troops for intelligence, logistical assistance and heavy firepower.
"I think everyone needs to understand that this is a step," said Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, who attended the handover ceremony with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. "First we had to build and train them. Then we put them in the lead, and we'll ultimately help them become independent. That's a little ways down the road."
Khalilzad called it "a good day for Iraq. Iraqi forces are taking on more responsibility."
Asked about the vastly greater challenge of tackling violence in Baghdad, the ambassador said: "Security in Baghdad is vital. It's the national capital, and 7 million Iraqis live there. . . . A new, modified security plan is in the process of being implemented that will take on one neighborhood after another."
After an earlier U.S.-Iraqi security scheme for Baghdad, called Operation Forward Together, failed to stem sectarian killings and other violence ravaging the city, Pentagon officials announced last month that thousands of U.S. troops would be moved to Baghdad from elsewhere in Iraq. A key component of the shift is the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, whose 3,700 troops have been gradually taking up positions in Baghdad, according to Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, a U.S. military spokesman.
The military said in a statement Tuesday that the second phase of Operation Forward Together had begun, with the Iraqi national police and the 4th Brigade Combat team of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division conducting "clearing operations" in Baghdad.
"We must dramatically reduce the level of violence in Baghdad that is fueling sectarianism," Maj. Gen. J.D. Thurman, commander of the Multi-National Division in Baghdad, said in the statement. "Iraqi and U.S. forces will help the citizens of Baghdad by reducing the violence that has plagued this city since the Samarra bombing." The destruction of a Shiite shrine in the northern city of Samarra on Feb. 22 triggered the current wave of sectarian killings.
The bombings in Baghdad's Shorja district laid waste to the shops that make up the al-Araby market, according to survivors.
"The explosion did not hurt me, but glass panels of the shops and in the ceiling were shattered and caused the injuries," said Hameed Jabbar, 34, a merchant who was in serious condition at Kindi Hospital with wounds in the face, chest and abdomen.
Witnesses said that the two bombs detonated about 10 minutes apart and that the second caused the most devastation. "Many of the casualties occurred because of the flying glass caused by the second explosion," said Munthir Yassen, 30, a friend of Jabbar's who escaped injury. "This is a criminal act carried out against innocent civilians trying to make a living at this market."
Late Tuesday night, a pair of bombs exploded near an apartment building in the northern town of Baqubah. Police Capt. Noor Ibrahim said the bombs collapsed the building and heavily damaged a nearby Shiite prayer hall.
Four people were known dead, and rescue workers were still searching through the rubble at about midnight, Ibrahim said.
Special correspondent Hasan Shammari in Baqubah and other Washington Post employees in Iraq contributed to this report.