KERBALA, Iraq, Oct 29 (Reuters) Iraqi security forces formally took control today of Iraq's Kerbala province, home to one of the holiest cities in Shi'ite Islam and where rival Shi'ite factions are struggling for political dominance.
US-led coalition forces have now handed over security responsibility in eight of Iraq's 18 provinces -- five in the more stable Shi'ite south and three in the largely autonomous northern region of Kurdistan.
The top US civilian and military officials in Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, said the handover of Kerbala was a significant moment in Iraq's transition to self-reliance.
''Iraqi security forces in Kerbala have been successfully operating independently, maintaining their own security for the past three months,'' they said in a statement.
''They have demonstrated their readiness to assume responsibility for the province. Today this responsibility is theirs.'' Kerbala, the provincial capital and a centre of Shi'ite pilgrimage and worship has been largely peaceful, but tensions between local factions in the holy city boiled over in August during a major festival when 52 people were killed.
The fighting around the shrines of Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas, two of the holiest for Shi'ite Muslims, pitted supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr against the Badr Organisation of the rival Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC).
Analysts say rival Shi'ite factions are locked in an intensifying power struggle in southern Iraq, one they fear will trigger more bloodletting, especially in the lead-up to provincial elections widely expected to take place next year.
Two provincial governors, allied to SIIC, were blown up in roadside bomb attacks in August.
The Iraqi government had hoped to assume responsibility for security in all Iraqi provinces by the end of the year, but the Pentagon said in its quarterly Iraq report in September that this was now likely to happen in July 2008.
At the handover ceremony, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said the southern oil-hub of Basra, which is also plagued by factional disputes, would be transferred from British control in mid-December.
He also appeared to reach out to hundreds of Sunni Arab insurgents who haved joined forces with US troops in fighting al Qaeda in western and central Iraq. The Iraqi government has viewed this development with some suspicion, worrying that its former enemies still pose a major threat.
''We welcome those returning from committing wrongs who wish to correct their course and actions to participate in building Iraq,'' Maliki said.
REUTERS SKB RN1704