Iraqis to take over in Karbala

Province is eighth of 18 that United States military has handed over to security forces

October 28, 2007|By Christian Berthelsen | Christian Berthelsen,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- U.S. military officials said yesterday that they were turning over security for Karbala province south of Baghdad to Iraqi security forces tomorrow, which will mark the eighth of Iraq's 18 provinces in which Iraqis have assumed control.

The move has been delayed several times as violence has continued to erupt there.

Also, Iraq's prime minister pledged yesterday to protect and support the Christian minority, which has been fleeing the chaos and sectarian violence in the country.

As recently as August, clashes in Karbala killed about 50 people when fighting broke out between rival Shiite factions competing for control of the region's oil resources, during a pilgrimage commemorating the birth of Mohammed Mahdi, one of Shiite Islam's 12 most revered imams. The Shiite pilgrimages are also often a target of Sunni insurgents using suicide bombers and snipers. In January, five U.S. soldiers also were killed there in a raid on a compound by gunmen who were dressed in U.S. uniforms.

Still, "it's to the point where they are going to pull it off," said U.S. Master Sgt. Dennis Beebe.

An Iraqi brigade commander said a celebration is planned for tomorrow in Karbala Stadium. Heidar Ibadi, a member of parliament's ruling Dawa Party, said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "thinks that the armed forces are very prepared and up to the responsibility."

After receiving the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, Emmanuel III Delly, al-Maliki affirmed his government's readiness and determination to defend the small community and to stop the outflow of Iraqi Christians, according to a statement released by al-Maliki's office.

Delly, who is the head of Chaldean Church in Iraq and spiritual leader to all Chaldeans, has been outspoken about the need to protect minority Christians from Iraq's spiraling violence.

Earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Delly a cardinal, when he named 23 new "princes" of the Roman Catholic Church. The Christian community here, about 3 percent of the country's 26 million people, is particularly vulnerable and has little political or military clout to defend itself.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians, who are mostly Chaldeans, have been targeted by Islamic extremists who label them "crusaders" loyal to U.S. troops.

A bomb killed eight people and wounded 13 others early yesterday morning near a stretch of restaurants just southeast of Baghdad where day laborers gather to find work and people prepare for the commute into the city, police said.

Elsewhere, the U.S. military disclosed the death of a soldier who was shot Thursday during an operation in Salahuddin province, northwest of Baghdad. No further details were released, and the soldier's identity was withheld pending notification of next of kin.

An official at Yarmouk Hospital in Baghdad reported that as many as 150 Iraqi army soldiers may have suffered a bout of food poisoning and that 50 of them were taken there for treatment. Army officials have complained in the past that vendors sometimes served substandard food. Thirty-five of the soldiers were discharged after being treated.

In Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, the commander of the Muqdadiya police force, Col. Amer Nsaif Jassim, and seven of his officers were reported abducted at a checkpoint on the road between Muqdadiya and Baqubah yesterday morning, according to the Ministry of Interior.

The U.S. military reported capturing the leader of a Shiite militia faction that was not honoring cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's pledge of a temporary cease-fire. The group had allegedly been engaged in roadside bombing attacks on U.S. soldiers, kidnapping operations and weapons procurement.

Two other alleged militants were killed in the raid, one of whom was said to be wearing a suicide bombing vest, and 14 others were captured. The U.S. said the cell leader had ties to Iranian intelligence.

Iraqi police said they found the bodies of four people shot to death on the streets of Baghdad yesterday.

Christian Berthelsen writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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