BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi forces for the first time took over security responsibility for an entire province Thursday, a milestone in the plan to transfer control of the entire country by the end of next year.
British Maj. Gen. John Cooper signed the document turning over responsibility for Muthanna province, a sparsely populated Shi'ite province that had been under British and Australian control.
"It is a great national day that will be registered in the history of Iraq," Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in a ceremony in the provincial capital of Samawah. "This step will bring happiness to all Iraqis."
The strategy of transferring all 18 provinces to Iraqi control depends on the capability of Iraq's newly trained police and army to maintain order.
During the handover ceremony, al-Maliki warned that insurgents were bent on upsetting the process and destroying Iraq's national unity.
"They will spare no effort to destroy this step and ensure that no further steps are taken," al-Maliki said. "But, with solidarity and patience, you will cut off the hands that want to sabotage this region."
Only about 700 British and Australian troops were stationed in Muthanna, along with about 600 Japanese soldiers on a humanitarian mission.
The Japanese troops are in the process of leaving the country, while the British and Australians will move elsewhere in southern Iraq.
Coalition forces are expected to hand over responsibility soon in other quiet southern provinces. If all goes well, the U.S.-led coalition plans to transfer responsibility for the 17 other provinces by the end of next year. U.S. and other international troops would then let the Iraqis run security while staying in reserve in case of a crisis. That would be followed by a third stage in which U.S. troops would leave Iraq.