A Sept. 7 article incorrectly reported U.S. troop strength in Iraq's Anbar province. There are 32,000 U.S. forces there. (Published 9/12/2005)
The U.S. military pulled hundreds of troops out of the southern city of Najaf on Tuesday, 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.
In the same area, U.S. warplanes later destroyed a building that insurgents had used to fire upon American and Iraqi troops, a U.S. military statement said. At least two suspected foreign fighters were killed, the military said.
Suspected insurgents in the same western province, Anbar, kidnapped the son of the new governor in Ramadi, the provincial capital, officials said Tuesday. Insurgents kidnapped the previous Anbar governor in May; he was killed in a U.S. attack on the house where he was being held.
U.S. Marines have a force of about 5,000 to cover the province's 24,000 square miles. American officers in Anbar say the Marines 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.
Roadside bombs killed two American service members Tuesday, one in Baghdad and one in Ramadi, the U.S. military said.
In Baghdad, meanwhile, President Jalal Talabani told al-Iraqiya television that former president Saddam Hussein had confessed to crimes, including killings, committed on his orders. Talabani said he had been told by an investigating judge that "he was able to extract confessions from Saddam's mouth."
"Saddam deserves a death sentence 20 times a day because he tried to assassinate me 20 times," Talabani said, recalling his days as a Kurdish rebel leader. Hussein is scheduled to face trial on Oct. 19 for his role in a 1982 massacre of 143 Shiite Muslims in the town of Dujail.
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 Moqtada 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 Sistani, ordered Sadr to rein in his fighters.
Tensions surged again last month when clashes erupted between 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.
"There's always [the] possibility of little spurts of violence here and there," Boylan said, but for U.S. forces now, "the top priority is foreign fighters and the Iraqis who support them."
About 400 U.S. soldiers left the base in Tuesday's handover, Lt. Col. James Oliver, commander of Forward Operating Base Hotel, told reporters, and "more will leave in the future."
The United States, which has 138,000 troops in Iraq, is pushing for major withdrawals to begin in early spring. Iraqi and U.S. officials had identified Najaf as one of the first places where the United States could draw down its forces. Other cities in the heavily Shiite south, and in the Kurdish north, are likely to be next.
The mostly Shiite Iraqi force assuming command here immediately renamed the post Base Karrar, or Base Warrior, a reference to one of Shiite Islam's most important figures, Ali, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad.
"Our forces are capable of defending the city," said Abdul Hussein Abdulridha Abtan, Najaf's deputy governor. "They are able to defeat the biggest terrorist operation."
Some residents of Najaf welcomed the handover.
"It is a happy event for Iraqis when we take care of our affairs, not the occupier," said Mustafa Hamdani, 19, a university student. "But we want them to continue [to] train our soldiers."
Others, however, expressed concern.
"It's true we would prefer not to have U.S. forces in the city -- but we need them," said boutique owner Aqil Farhan, 25. "The Iraqi forces are not capable of maintaining security yet."
Fekeiki reported from Baghdad.