By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 23 -- The U.S. military on Thursday gave Iraqi authorities control of security in most of the "Triangle of Death," an area south of Baghdad that has seen a dramatic turnaround.
But in a sign of continuing instability, a suicide bomber in Baghdad tried to assassinate Iraq's labor minister, slamming an explosives-laden SUV into an official convoy and killing nine people, authorities said. The minister, Mahmoud al-Sheikh Radhi, escaped injury.
The blast occurred 200 yards from the entrance to the heavily guarded Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy and the prime minister's office.
Violence in Iraq has decreased sharply in the past year, and U.S. authorities have been eager to transfer security responsibilities to the Iraqi forces they have been trying to rebuild since the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
On Thursday, Babil province became the 12th of Iraq's 18 provinces where security responsibilities have been passed to domestic forces. Most of what was called the Triangle of Death was located within its borders. Thousands of people have been killed in sectarian clashes in the mostly Sunni Arab area during the past five years.
But the violence diminished with the creation of "Awakening" groups, U.S.-paid patrols of mostly Sunni fighters who broke with insurgents and allied with U.S. forces.
"Today's security handover in Babil is the fruit of the victory over al-Qaeda, militias and the special groups," said Babil's governor, Salim al-Musilmawi. He was referring to the mostly domestic Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq as well as to Shiite militias.
Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, called the transfer a "milestone," noting that the number of attacks in the province had fallen 80 percent from an average of 20 per week last year. But he said that "while the enemies of Iraq are down, they are not necessarily defeated," the Associated Press reported.
The approximately 3,800 U.S. troops in the province will remain to train Iraqi security forces and in case Iraqi authorities request assistance, American military officials said.
Under the Iraq strategy announced by President Bush in January 2007, security for all of Iraq's provinces was to be transferred by November of that year. U.S. military officials have said the process was delayed because of the Iraqi police force's inability to handle the responsibility.
The United States has not yet ceded control of security in Baghdad, which has been plagued by explosions. Officials have tried to prevent car bombings by setting up checkpoints and turning the city into a honeycomb of blast walls that limit the movement of vehicles. But while bombings at mosques and other crowded places have declined, assassinations are on the rise, officials say.
The attack against Radhi occurred during the morning rush hour when a gray 1979 Toyota Land Cruiser slammed into his official motorcade in Tahrir Square in central Baghdad and exploded, authorities said. The minister is a member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major Shiite coalition partner of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The blast killed nine people and wounded 26, according to Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the top spokesman for Iraqi military operations in Baghdad. Among the dead were three of the minister's bodyguards, including his nephew, according to a statement from the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry.
The explosion blew a hole in the street, sheared chunks of brick off buildings and damaged many cars in the area. The windows of stores surrounding the square were shattered, and glass carpeted the sidewalks.
Special correspondents Aziz Alwan in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.