US hands over command of Iraqi forces to Baghdad

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The Independent Online

The US formally handed over the command of Iraqi forces to the Baghdad government yesterday in a step towards the eventual withdrawal of American troops.

Major General William Caldwell said the event had "gigantic" significance. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, taking over as commander-in-chief, declared: "This is the message I have for the terrorists: we will see that you get great punishment wherever you are."

It is, however, unclear just how swiftly Iraqi forces will be able to take over security duties. Maj-Gen Caldwell said that "conceptually, they have talked about perhaps two divisions a month".

Baghdad was rocked by a series of explosions just hours before the handover ceremony, killing 16 people and injuring 45 others. Two American soldiers were also killed, one in Anbar province and another at Hawija, north of Baghdad.

The Iraqi capital recorded more than 1,500 deaths in August alone, the Iraqi Health Ministry said. The figure was almost three times the preliminary estimate given by the ministry and contradicted US and Iraqi government claims that security in the city was being brought under control after the deployment of 12,000 extra troops.

Highlighting the sectarian divide, proceedings at the Iraqi parliament were disrupted yesterday after Sunni members angrily accused the largest Shia party of attempting to dismember the country with its proposals for a federal system.

* The new leader of al-Qa'ida in Iraq has called on Muslims to unite with Iraqi insurgents, according to an audiotape broadcast by al-Jazeera television. "Place your hands in our hands... our enemy has unified his ranks, now is the time to unite," said Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who has succeeded Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

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