The U.S. Army general responsible for security in three provinces southwest of Baghdad says that job is now being done primarily by Iraqi forces in two of the provinces. News reports from the area have indicated that an Iraqi Shi'ite militia is the most influential force in the area, but the general said Friday the militia is not controlling the local police, who play a key role in maintaining order in the area.
Speaking via satellite to reporters at the Pentagon, Brigadier General Augustus Collins said his troops are mainly in a support role in Najaf and Karbala provinces.
"I can tell you that the Iraqi army in Najaf and Karbala have responsibility for those two provinces right now. We're just in an advisory and training mode as far as those provinces are concerned," said Mr. Collins.
Later, a spokesman said the general meant to say the Iraqi army has the primary responsibility for security in the two provinces, but full control has not yet been handed over. In addition, General Collins said the same situation exists in part of neighboring Babil province, and he expects the Iraqi-controlled area of that province to expand soon after next week's election.
President Bush promoted security and reconstruction advances in the city of Najaf during a major speech on Iraq last week, calling it a model of what coalition forces are trying to accomplish elsewhere in the country. But western news reports from the area indicate that the Shi'ite Muslim militia controlled by Moqtada al-Sadr is the real power in the area. The cleric led a rebellion against the temporary Iraqi government last year. But, contrary to the news reports, General Collins says he has no evidence of significant infiltration of the local police by men loyal to the militia leader.
"I don't see it as being a problem," he added. "I won't say that we don't have any because I can't tell you that truthfully that we don't have any because I don't know. But I don't see it as being a problem right now."
The general also says the al-Sadr militia is seldom seen on the streets of Najaf, and usually only around the time of Friday prayers. He says Moqtada al-Sadr appears to have made a strategic decision not to make trouble, at least for now.
"I think that al-Sadr understands that the way to being successful in this country is you've got to maintain a peaceful attitude at least through the elections," explained Mr. Collins. "So I don't see him doing anything that's going to cause us any problems."
Shi'ites are the majority in Iraq. They control the current interim government and are expected to control the parliament that will be elected next week for a four-year term, providing the opportunity for Shiite leaders like Mr. al-Sadr to gain power after decades of repression under Saddam Hussein's mainly Sunni Muslim regime.