The US military will hand over control of the Shiite province of Karbala to Iraqi security forces next week, the province's governor said on Saturday as violence claimed another 29 lives across the country.
"Iraqi security forces will take over the security file of Karbala by end of this month from the Americans," Governor Akhil al-Khazali said.
Karbala will be the eighth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be transferred to Iraqi control. Under the terms of the handover, US forces will move into a reserve position and offer its troops only in case of emergency and if asked by the governor.
The province, some 80km south of Baghdad, is peaceful compared with some other central and western regions of Iraq, but is emerging as a flashpoint of Shiite rivalry.
The province, which is home to the shrines of two of Shiite Islam's most revered imams -- Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas -- was the site of a bloody firefight in August during a major religious festival.
At least 52 people died in the clashes between Shiite fighters and police as tens of thousands of pilgrims marked the anniversary of a 12th century imam.
The other Iraqi provinces handed over by US forces to date are Maysan, Muthanna, Dhi Qar and Najaf in the central and southern regions and the three northern Kurdish provinces of Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah.
"In spite of all the challenges we faced during those clashes we are determined to take over the responsibility," Khazali said, adding that Iraqi forces "have the ability to carry out its missions."
Meanwhile, Iraqi troops found 17 decomposed bodies of unidenfied men near the restive city of Baqubah in a grim reminder of sustained sectarian bloodletting, as 12 other people were also killed in the country on Saturday.
Colonel Arshad al-Tamimi said the bodies were found in an open area 5km west of Baqubah, the capital of the province of Diyala located northeast of Baghdad.
Doctor Ahmad Fuhad of Baqubah General Hospital confirmed the bodies were brought to the medical facility and were in a decomposed state, adding it was difficult to ascertain how the men were killed.
The discovery is a fresh reminder of the brutal sectarian strife that still continues in Iraq despite military crackdowns in flashpoint areas.
A large number of such bodies used to crop up regularly on the streets of Baghdad and other violent cities until a few months back, most of them shooting victims of sectarian attacks.
But recently the number of such corpses had fallen drastically and Saturday's find was one of the largest in months.
In another incident gunmen wearing military uniforms abducted the police chief of the town of Muqdadiyah in Diyala and his seven bodyguards, security officials said.
The convoy of Colonel Amer Nsaif was ambushed near the village of Abu Saidr on Friday by armed men, they said.
Insurgents also killed 12 people in Iraq on Saturday, including five in Diyala.
Three people died in mortar attacks and two in a roadside bombing in the province, police said.
Five other people, including a group of truck drivers, were killed when a series of roadside bombs struck their convoy south of the northern Iraqi oil city of Kirkuk, police said. Two others died in northern Iraq, police added.
US forces seized a Shiite fighter and shot dead two others on Saturday, accusing them of ignoring cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's order to freeze militia's activities.
The US military said its troops launched an early morning operation in the village of Fawwaliyah in Diyala to capture the militant.
"The operation was targeting a splinter group leader, who was not honoring Moqtada al-Sadr's pledge to cease attacks and who was involved in weapons procurement, kidnapping and explosively-formed penetrator [EFP] attacks," the military said in a statement.
Without revealing the identity of the militant, the statement said he had ties with an Iranian intelligence cell.
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