HILLA, Iraq, Nov 12 (Reuters) Iraqi forces will take over security for Babel province south of Baghdad next month, police and government officials said today, making it the ninth province to be handed back to Iraqi control from foreign forces.
''On the 17th or 18th of December the security file for Babel province will be handed over to the Iraqis,'' Babel provincial government spokesman Abdul-Ridha Issa told Reuters.
A police spokesman for the provincial capital Hilla gave the same dates.
US-led coalition forces last month handed over security responsibility for Kerbala province just to the west of Babel.
Babel would become the sixth province in the more stable, predominantly Shi'ite south to be handed over, with the other three in the largely autonomous northern region of Kurdistan.
A religiously and ethnically mixed province, it takes in the Sunni Arab insurgency stronghold known as the ''triangle of death'' in the north and is more heavily Shi'ite further south.
A Pentagon report to the US Congress in September said current projections showed the handover of security responsibility for all 18 provinces could be done ''as early as July 2008''.
A US military spokeswoman said today it had been assumed either the southern oil hub of Basra or Babel would be the next province to be handed back after Kerbala but was not immediately aware of any firm plans for Babel.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said at a handover ceremony in Kerbala last month that Basra would transferred from British control in mid-December.
REUTERS PD HS1512