WASHINGTON- Complete security and governance responsibilities transferred to Iraqi officials in Wasit province today, giving Iraq’s government responsibility for more than two-thirds of the country, Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell told reporters during a news conference today.

“The national and local government now has responsibility for security and governance in all of southern Iraq,” Morrell said. “It is our hope that Iraqis can take charge of security for the final five provinces in the coming months.”

Wasit becomes the 13th of the country’s 18 provinces, and second in a week, to transition to Iraqi control, he said. Wasit follows Babil province to its west, which transferred during a ceremony there Oct. 23.

The milestone means a great deal to the partnerships between the Iraqi government and coalition forces, Army Lt. Col. Amy Hannah, a Multinational Force Iraq spokeswoman, said today. “We are working together to provide the security needed for the stability and prosperity Iraqis need to move forward in their lives,” she said.

Multinational Division Center, for which the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division provides the headquarters, maintains about 2,200 combat and support troops throughout Wasit, providing a secondary role in security efforts there. If Iraqi forces need assistance, local authorities can request coalition support through the provincial governor, Hannah explained.

Coalition forces retain an overwatch position in the province, she said, meaning that should security degrade beyond the capability of local Iraqi police and army forces, the provincial governor may approach the national government to seek assistance, and the prime minister determines if the assistance is needed.

“As in any place in the world, you will still have isolated, condemnable incidences of senseless violence, no matter the stability of the area,” Hannah said. “As we have always said, al-Qaida and other terrorist groups here have been dealt a serious blow by Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi people and coalition forces, but they are still a dangerous element.”

More than 13,000 Iraqis make up Wasit’s security force, which includes more than 10,000 police and nearly 3,000 soldiers. Wasit’s police force grew to its current strength from fewer than 1,500 officers in only three years, Hannah said.

A provincial reconstruction team made up largely of State Department personnel operates in Wasit and will continue its work with the Iraqis. The team has been helping provincial officials with infrastructure improvements, health care, rule of law, education and agricultural and economic development, she said.

“This is a very important partnership that works well and has accomplished much for the Iraqi people,” she added.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki chairs Iraq’s national security council and has the final approval authority for provincial turnovers, Hannah said. The council and coalition members evaluate the province against a set of conditions to determine whether it’s ready for turnover, considering the region’s security state, the readiness and capability of Iraqi forces, the proficiency of the regional government and the supporting ability of coalition forces, she explained.

Officials here and in Iraq are unsure which will be the next province to transfer responsibilities, Morrell said. The remaining five provinces – Baghdad, Diyala, Salahuddin, Ninevah and Kirkuk — though much improved over the past year, still are considered problematic, he said. Transition will be a tough test for security forces in those provinces, he said.

“The remaining provinces are particularly challenging, but with each passing day, the Iraqi army and police are growing in capacity, capability and confidence,” he said. “Our forces are working hard to help the Iraqi government recruit, train and equip security forces that can one day protect all Iraqis from internal and external threats.”

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