U.S.-led coalition forces have formally handed over the responsibility for security in three northern Iraqi provinces to the autonomous Kurdistan government. The carefully orchestrated handover ceremony emphasized Iraqi unity. But VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Irbil that there were also signs of Kurdish resistance to Iraqi central-government rule.
The handover ceremony began with the rare performance of the Iraqi national anthem by a Kurdish orchestra in the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie said the Kurdish government and the central government in Baghdad had overcome many obstacles leading up to the formal transfer of security.
He says the last problem was the flag, and you see here the Iraqi flag beside the Kurdistan flag and the Iraqi national anthem played with the Kurdistan national anthem.
The Iraqi flag is rarely seen in the Kurdish north, where many people view it as a symbol the repressive rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraq's Kurdish region has been effectively self-governed since 1992, after the U.N.-mandated no-fly zone pushed out the military of Saddam Hussein.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish north has largely remained under the control of Kurdish security forces and has been spared much of the sectarian violence in the rest of the country.
The ceremony officially turns over security responsibilities of the three provinces of Irbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk. Coalition forces already turned over authority of four majority Shi'ite provinces in the far south earlier this year.
Following the official handover, Iraqi, Kurdish and American officials gathered outside for a military parade of Kurdish soldiers and police officers.
These soldiers are considered among the best organized and trained security forces in Iraq, and they are controlled by the Kurdistan government, not central-government authorities in Baghdad.
Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechiran Barzani said the transfer of the security authority is a good thing for all Iraqis.
He says a success for any part of Iraq is a success for all of Iraq. He also says the Kurds believe that federalism is the best system to serve the hopes of all Iraqis.
Kurdish officials have been strong advocates of a federal system that gives regional authorities control over a wide range of internal issues.
The prime minister also spoke about several contentious upcoming public votes in parts of northern Iraq. The areas now under Baghdad's control, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, could change to Kurdish-government control.
Iraqi officials in Baghdad have recommended delaying the vote, but the prime minister said those people must be given the chance to decide their future before the end of the year.