IMAGE: Command handover ceremony
Ali al-Saadi  /  AFP - Getty Images
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and coalition commander Gen. George Casey shake hands in Baghdad during Thursday's handover ceremony.
msnbc.com news services
updated 9/7/2006 10:03:50 AM ET 2006-09-07T14:03:50

Coalition forces handed over control of Iraq’s armed forces command to the government Thursday, a move that U.S. officials have hailed as a crucial milestone on the country’s difficult road to independence.

The prime minister takes control of Iraq’s small naval and air forces and the 8th Iraqi Army Division. However, it is still unclear how rapidly the Iraqi forces will be prepared to take over their own security.

“From today forward, the Iraqi military responsibilities will be increasingly conceived and led by Iraqis,” said Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, at a ceremony.

Meantime, the government announced the execution of 27 “terrorists” convicted by Iraqi courts of killings and rapes in several provinces.

The 27 were executed in Baghdad on Wednesday, the government’s media office said in a brief statement. It did not provide any further details.

Despite progress in the shift in Iraqi command, there was more bloodshed with at least 36 people killed across the country Wednesday in car bombs, mortar attacks and drive-by shootings. Police also found 29 bodies.

Early Thursday, a bomb hidden under a parked car near a mosque in northern Baghdad exploded, killing three people and wounding 20, police said.

‘Gigantic' step
Prior to the shift in the Iraqi command, U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell called the step "gigantic."

“This is the message I have for the terrorists: We will see that you get great punishment wherever you are. There is nothing for you but prison and punishment,” Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki said at a ceremony at the Defense Ministry in Baghdad.

The highly anticipated ceremony came five days after it was originally scheduled. The government abruptly called off the original ceremony at the last minute.

The United States and the Iraqis did not publicly reveal many details of the disagreement, other than to say it was more procedural than substantive.

Timing unclear
Following the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the United States disbanded what was left of the defeated Iraqi army. The U.S.-led coalition has been training and equipping the new Iraqi military, hoping it soon will be in a position to take over security for the entire country and allow foreign troops to return home.

But it is still unclear how fast this can be done.

“They can move as rapidly thereafter as they want. I know, conceptually, they’ve talked about perhaps two divisions a month,” Caldwell said.

The 8th Division was recently engaged in a fierce, 12-hour battle with Shiite militia in the southern city of Diwaniyah which left more than 20 soldiers and 50 militiamen dead.

Days before the battle, the Division’s commander, Brig. Gen. Othman al-Farhoud, told The Associated Press that while his forces were capable of controlling security, they still needed support from the U.S.-led coalition.

He said there was still a need for coalition air support, medical assistance and military storage facilities.

“In my opinion, it will take time,” al-Farhoud said when asked how long it would take before his division was completely self-sufficient.

Politicians have been optimistic.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani predicted in a Tuesday meeting with visiting British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett that fighting in Iraq will have abated by the end of 2007, and that Iraqi forces will be able to handle any remaining violence.

Violence persists
Yet the killing continued.

On Wednesday, two bombs targeting an Iraqi army patrol exploded in northern Baghdad within minutes at a busy intersection, killing at least nine people and wounding 39, police said. Two of the dead and eight of the wounded were Iraqi soldiers, police said.

In northeastern Baghdad, gunmen opened fire on a procession of pilgrims heading to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, killing one person and wounding two.

Tens of thousands are expected in Karbala Saturday to observe Shaaban, a religious celebration. Many of the pilgrims travel to the city on foot. State television said a vehicle curfew had been imposed in Karbala from Wednesday night until the end of the celebration.

Mortar attacks in residential areas in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, killed three people: a 2-year-old child in the Khan Bani Saad area and two people in Muqdadiyah, 60 miles north of Baghdad, police said.

Meanwhile, a dispute over Iraq’s flag also showed no signs of abating.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, angered many in Baghdad with his decision last week to replace the Iraqi national flag with the Kurdish banner. The Kurdish region has been gaining more autonomy since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, a worrying development to many Iraqi leaders, especially Sunni Arabs.

Although Iraq’s first interim Governing Council after the fall of Saddam Hussein decided to change the country’s flag, no official version has been adopted.

Lawmakers wrangled over the issue in parliament Wednesday, but parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani insisted the dispute was drawing attention away from the country’s true problems.

“This issue of the flag is not suitable now because we have a security problem and deficiencies in services and we are in the phase of national reconciliation,” he said.

He suggested the solution was to adopt a new flag as quickly as possible.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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