updated 9/21/2006 6:46:36 AM ET 2006-09-21T10:46:36

Iraqi forces formally took over security in a southern province from Italian troops on Thursday, making Dhi Qar the second of the country’s 18 provinces to come under local control.

At a ceremony in the provincial capital, Nasiriyah, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki thanked Italian Defense Minister Arturo Parisi for his country’s help. Italy has about 1,600 troops in the country, mostly in Nasiriyah, and that force is expected to be withdrawn by year’s end.

“The Italian contingent is going back. The mission is accomplished — the security of the province is in your hands,” Parisi said.

The Italian mission came at some cost to its troops. Italy’s military has reported 32 deaths in Iraq, including 19 killed in the bombing of a military barracks on November 12, 2003.

Another Italian soldier died Thursday in an accident in southern Iraq, hours before Italy handed over control of Dhi Qar, the Italian defense ministry said.

Al-Maliki thanked “Italian troops for their services in helping the Iraqi troops take responsibility of security control.”

“It is a great day, it holds the message of the future handover of security control in all of Iraq,” he said.

Al-Maliki has said that Iraqi army and police plan to take over security for all of Iraq’s provinces within the next 18 months. British troops handed over control of southern Muthana province in July.

'Another sign of progress'
America’s overall strategy calls for the U.S.-led coalition forces to redeploy to larger bases and let Iraqis become responsible for their security in specific regions. The larger bases can act in a support or reserve role. A final stage would involve the drawdown of troops from Iraq.

In a joint statement, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, lauded the handover as “another sign of progress toward a stable and secure Iraq.”

They described it as “an important milestone along the successful path toward Iraq’s capability to govern and protect itself as a sovereign nation” and added that “several other provinces are close to meeting the criteria necessary to assume security independence.”

Romania has a battalion of about 402 soldiers in Dhi Qar, out of a total of 628 in the country. Romania last month said it would withdraw some of its troops from Iraq as the Iraqi government takes over military control of the province.

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