BAGHDAD - U.S. forces will turn over security to Iraqi authorities in the southern Shiite province of Karbala on Monday, the American commander for the area said, despite fighting between rival militia factions that has killed dozens.
Karbala will become only the eighth of Iraq's 18 provinces to revert to Iraqi control, despite President Bush's prediction in January that the Iraqi government would have responsibility for security in all of the provinces by November.
But the target date has slipped repeatedly, highlighting the difficulties in developing Iraqi police forces and the slow pace of economic and political progress in areas still troubled by daily violence.
A bomb struck a mainly Shiite town southeast of Baghdad on Saturday for the second time in less than a week, the deadliest attack on a day in which at least 23 people were killed or found dead.
In northern Iraq, clashes broke out between al-Qaida in Iraq fighters and a rival Sunni group near the volatile city of Samarra, and police said some 16 militants were killed.
The fighting broke out after calls from imams at local mosques to expel al-Qaida from the area, labeling them as ""false mujahedeens' or false holy warriors, according to a provincial police officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced the death of an American soldier killed Thursday during small arms fire during operations in the Salahuddin province, a mainly Sunni area north of Baghdad.
Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, who leads the 3rd Infantry Division, said the Iraqis were ready to assume full control of their own security in Karbala province, home to shrines of two major Shiite saints, Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein. U.S. troops would remain ready to step in if help were needed.
Lynch dismissed concerns about Shiite rivalries in the region, two months after clashes between militiamen battling for power erupted during a major pilgrimage in the provincial capital, also called Karbala, left at least 52 people dead.
""Of course there's violence in the area, but not nearly of the magnitude that would cause me to be troubled by it,' he told The Associated Press on Saturday.
""This place is about a struggle for power and influence, and there are indeed inter-Shia rivalries where different groups are trying to be in charge, and sometimes they revert to violence, but it's not at the magnitude that's got me concerned,' he said during a visit to a patrol base being constructed in Nahrawan, a Shiite city of 120,000 on the southeastern edge of Baghdad.
Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, has faced several bombings that have killed dozens of people since the Sunni insurgency began in the late summer of 2003, just months after the U.S.-led invasion in March.
It also was the site of one of the boldest and most sophisticated attacks on U.S. soldiers in the war in Iraq, when gunmen driving American SUVs, speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons abducted four U.S. soldiers at the provincial headquarters and later shot them to death. A fifth soldier was killed in the Jan. 20 attack.