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Coalition forces handed over control of Iraq's armed forces command to the government on Thursday, a move US officials have hailed as a crucial milestone on the country's difficult road to independence.
"From today forward, the Iraqi military responsibilities will be increasingly conceived and led by Iraqis," said the top US commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, at a ceremony to mark the event.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Casey signed the document which puts the prime minister in direct control of the country's military.
Al-Maliki now has complete control over the country's small navy and air force, and of the 8th Iraqi Army Division, based in the south.
"The Iraqi Army today is rebuilt again away from sectarian violence," al-Maliki said at the ceremony.
On Wednesday, US military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell had described the ceremony as "a huge, significant event" that was "gigantic" in its significance.
Handing over control of the country's security to Iraqi forces is vital to any eventual drawdown of US forces here. After disbanding the remaining Iraqi army following the US-led invasion in 2003, coalition forces have been training the new Iraqi military.
However, it is unclear exactly how quickly Iraqi forces will be prepared to take over their own security.
"It's the prime minister's decision how rapidly he wants to move along with assuming control," Caldwell said Wednesday. "They can move as rapidly thereafter as they want. I know, conceptually, they've talked about perhaps two divisions a month."
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