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Iraqi troops have taken over security responsibilities for most of Diyala province in northeastern Iraq, while a U.S. combat brigade will stay in the area to provide support, U.S. officials said Tuesday.

In a ceremony on Monday, the 5th Iraqi Army Division was handed control of the area by the U.S. Army’s 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, who “will remain in the area to provide necessary support,” according to a news release.

“This division will be successful because it is composed of the full spectrum of Iraqi people,” Gen. Ahmed Klepos Awad Majhool al-Kozaee, commander of the 5th Iraqi Army Division, was quoted as saying during a ceremony at the Kirkush Military Training Base. “It represents the hand of the government that carries the weapon and the olive branch at the same time.”

U.S. officials said the Iraqi unit completed its “validation” testing, the process by which Iraqi troops are listed as capable of operating independently, in May.

The 5th Division is the first Iraqi unit in Multi-National Division North to be listed as capable in independent operations, officials said.

“It is only the fourth division to attain that status in all of Iraq,” the U.S. military release stated.

“They take the lead now,” Col. William Gothard of the U.S. Army Reserve’s 80th Division, which trains the Iraqi division, said.

The U.S. exit strategy in Iraq is based on training and fielding Iraqi security forces that can operate on their own.

The first transfer of authority in the province came on July 31, 2005, when Iraqi troops at Forward Operating Base Khamees took responsibility for roughly one-fifth of Diyala, U.S. officials said.

Diyala province stretches from the eastern edge of Baghdad out to the Iranian border, with a population of 1.7 million.

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