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US General: Iraqi Army in North to Take Over Region in 2007

The senior American military commander in northern Iraq says all the Iraqi army units in his area will take the operational lead in the region by early 2007. Meanwhile, three U.S. soldiers were killed south of Baghdad, and there are reports of clashes between Iranian forces and Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq along the border.

Reports say Iranian troops have been shelling Kurdish enclaves in Iraq and have crossed the border in the past several weeks to battle armed Kurdish separatists.

In a briefing from Iraq Friday, Army Major General Thomas Turner, commander of Multinational Division-North and the 101st Airborne Division, said he had received reports of the clashes between Kurdish and Iranian forces in his operational area, but that no American troops were involved.

"The area where the reported fight occurred was due north of Arbil in very restricted terrain, very mountainous terrain," he said. "And the reports are that Iranians attempted to come across and also shelled three cities. And the Iraqi government is dealing with that issue now. We do not have any Americans along the border up in that area."

The separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has accused Iran and Turkey of coordinating attacks against Kurdish enclaves in Iraq. Analysts say both countries are concerned that the autonomy enjoyed by Iraqi Kurds since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 will spark unrest among their own Kurdish populations.

In his briefing, beamed by satellite to Pentagon reporters, General Turner said Iraqi army units will take the lead in operations in northern Iraq by early 2007.

"All Iraqi army units in AO [area of operations] North are in the fight," he said. "Those that have not assumed an area of operations, it is generally due to a lack of equipment or specialized training, and those units are fighting alongside ours. We anticipate that all Iraqi army units in our AO operating in the lead by early next year."

He said al-Qaida in Iraq under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi remains the greatest threat in the area under his command.

"Foreign terrorists continue to make their way into the community, and there's a homegrown element of the organization throughout our AO," he added. "The more success we have against al-Qaida, the more willing Iraqi citizens are willing to report terrorist activity."

Meanwhile, three American soldiers were killed Friday by a roadside bomb in Babil province, south of Baghdad. A U.S. military statement says their vehicle was attacked near the town of Mahaweel, 75 kilometers south of Baghdad.