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Iraqi Security Forces Assume Control for Southern Province


For the first time, coalition troops have handed over security of one of Iraq's 18 provinces to Iraqi forces.

British and Australian troops Thursday transferred security for the southern province of Muthanna to Iraqi security forces. The mostly Shi'ite province is about 370 kilometers southeast of Baghdad, and is home to more than half a million people.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was present for the hand-over ceremony, and reassured the regional governor that, although terrorists might try to make this experiment fail, the government would do everything it could to make it a success.

But despite the calm in Muthanna, violence persisted in other parts of the country, with at least 16 people reported killed Thursday. The sectarian killings, particularly in and around Baghdad, have forced many families to flee the area. Hundreds of families have gone to safer areas in northern Iraq's Kurdistan region.

At a news conference Thursday in the northern city of Irbil, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said he hopes those families will be able to return home, as soon as the situation improves.

He blamed terrorists for the situation, saying they have lost all hope of succeeding in destroying democracy in Iraq, and so they are killing and kidnapping anyone.

In the last week, sectarian attacks have killed more than 100 Iraqis.

But the Iraqi president said the country has not descended into civil war. He says there are problems between some groups, but it is not a war.

In other developments, the U.S. military said one of its helicopters crashed southwest of Baghdad during a combat patrol, but the two pilots survived. The U.S. military also reported the death of an American sailor that occurred Wednesday in hostile action.

And in Washington, the White House announced that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet with President Bush in Washington on July 25. President Bush paid the Iraqi Prime Minister a surprise visit last month in Baghdad.