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The U.S. military has begun the “first phase” of handing over security operations in Salah ad Din province to the Iraqi army, American officials said Wednesday.

A small ceremony was held April 3, military officials said, in which the Iraqi 1st Brigade, 4th Army Division began its efforts to take over for the U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade “Rakkasans” of the 101st Airborne Division.

Salah ad Din is a strategically and economically key province in central Iraq. It includes the flashpoint towns of Tikrit — ancestral home of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein — and Samarra, site of a Shiite shrine bombing in February that touched off weeks of sectarian reprisals. The province, directly north of Baghdad, is also home to much of Iraq’s industrial capacity and natural resources.

It contains the main routes north from Baghdad to the rest of the country; much of that land is Sunni-dominated and prone to violence.

“Before April 3, Iraqi army battalions in these areas received directives solely from coalition forces. Now the (Iraqi) 1st Brigade has the authority to delegate missions to the battalions,” a U.S. military release read.

According to the military, two of the Iraqi brigade’s battalions have assumed their own “battle space” in parts of Tikrit and Samarra. The other battalions are scheduled to take up areas in Beiji and Balad later this year.

Prior to April 3, “coalition forces were responsible for conducting all the operations in partnership with the Iraqi forces,” Maj. Robert Bertrand, 3rd BCT Military Transition Team Leader, was quoted as saying in the news release. “Today, the Iraqi forces are in the lead. They are planning the operations. They are gathering the intelligence that is driving the maneuvers.”

U.S. forces in Salah ad Din will still provide helicopter capability and weapons and troops for specific missions, U.S. officials said. Some U.S. forward operating bases are also scheduled to be handed back to the Iraqis later this year.

As in other parts of the country, the goal is for the U.S. role to “steadily decline” as the Iraqi troops become effective.

Progress on that front varies widely throughout Iraq, and, as U.S. commanders have said, varies widely even within Iraqi units.

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