BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” The United States formally handed over control of Iraq’s new military to Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s government on Thursday just as rebels unleashed a fresh wave of deadly bomb attacks on Iraqi security forces.
Washington has hailed the handover as a “gigantic” milestone towards withdrawing 155,000 US-led foreign troops from Iraq.
But it coincided with a flurry of violence as insurgents, including three suicide bombers, targeted police across Baghdad in five separate strikes that killed 14 people. Attacks on Iraqi forces are common, but Thursday’s barrage was notably intense.
Whether by coincidence or design, the bombs showed that despite the transfer of military control, Maliki’s forces have a fragile grip on the capital and will depend on US firepower as they struggle to battle Sunni insurgents and communal bloodshed.
The Pentagon said there were now 145,000 American troops in Iraq, 18,000 more than in late July and the highest level since January, as commanders mount a security crackdown in Baghdad. Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq called for Muslims to unite against the “enemy”, according to an audiotape broadcast by Al Jazeera television: “Our enemy has unified his ranks. Now is the time to unite,” said the man identified as Abu Ayyoub Masri.
This week Iraqi and US officials announced the capture in June of a top Al Qaeda figure who they said was Masri’s deputy.
While Maliki was trumpeting a new army “free of sectarianism”, Iraq’s sectarian faultlines were laid bare in parliament as lawmakers began looking at federalism, a potentially explosive issue in the deeply divided country.
Tempers frayed as several lawmakers from the ShiiteÂ majority tried to force debate on a Shiite-proposed draft law that once dominant minority Sunnis fear could break up the country and leave them with little access to its oil wealth.
Maliki, a Shiite, is promoting “national reconciliation” and cracking down on “sectarianism”.
On Thursday, his government closed the Baghdad bureau ofÂ Al Arabiya pan-Arab satellite news channel for a month.
Despite criticism from local and international media bodies, the US-backed government said it took the decision because the channel failed to heed warnings about its coverage. Like its rival Al Jazeera, which was barred from Iraq two years ago, Arabiya is run from the Sunni-dominated Arabian Peninsula.
Maliki struck a defiant tone at the handover ceremony: “This is the message I have for the terrorists â€” we will see that you get great punishment wherever you are. There is nothing for you but prison and punishment,” he said, a day after Iraq executed 27 “terrorists” convicted of murder and rape.
Since the US occupying authority disbanded Saddamâ€™s army in 2003, the US military has been training a new force for nearly two years to take over security so that Washington can begin pulling out its troops.
Iraqis remain dependent on the US military for support to quell violence that kills an estimated 100 people a day.
“Today is another important milestone, but we still have a way to go,” General George Casey said after handing over control of Iraq’s 8th Army Division and the small navy and air force.
Nine other army divisions will be transferred in the coming months under a timetable set by Maliki, US officials say.
The ceremony had been originally scheduled for last week but was delayed after a dispute over the wording of terms.
Casey has forecast Iraq will be in charge of its own security within 12-18 months, with “very little help” from US- led forces, dismissing suggestions that a bloody battle last week was a setback to US efforts to stand up the Iraqi army.
But many Sunnis are suspicious of the Shiite-dominated army, which now totals about 130,000 soldiers. Analysts say that could undermine the army’s effectiveness.
Maliki told the military and police on Thursday that they served Iraq, not party or sectarian interests.
“There is a military discipline that you should follow. You have to follow the chain of command,” he said.