FORWARD OPERATING BASE FALCON, Iraq -- US forces turned over command of one of the most dangerous sections of Baghdad to the Iraqi Army yesterday -- part of a gradual transition that would allow US forces to begin pulling out.
The Iraqi troops took charge of the Sunni-dominated southern part of the capital after months of training and joint missions with American forces. US officers say the Iraqis are up to the task and the battalion's 32-year-old commander issued a defiant challenge to the insurgents whose attacks helped parts of the area earn the nickname, "Triangle of Death."
"The terrorists want to kill the Iraqi people," Colonel Ali Fadil said following the handover ceremony at a sprawling base on Baghdad's southern edge. "But we will not allow this even if we have to sacrifice our own lives."
Fadil's troops of the 6th Iraqi Division, Fourth Brigade, Fifth Battalion -- almost equally divided between Sunnis and Shi'ites -- marched in tight formation at yesterday's ceremony as an army band played selections including the British Army's "March of the Grenadier Guards."
Released from the formal parade, they shouted and sang, dancing with their AK-47s hoisted high.
Such scenes have played out at earlier transitions, but with violence raging around Iraq, not all have ended smoothly.
At least twice last month, US troops had to return to areas already turned over to back up Iraqi units overwhelmed by Sunni-Shi'ite fighting.
The challenge for Fadil's troops is especially serious, because the area they cover is one of the toughest in Iraq, a 23-square-mile chunk of land that includes Dora, a neighborhood dominated by hard-line Sunni supporters of former leader Saddam Hussein, and parts of the Triangle of Death, a volatile Sunni district spreading from the capital toward the predominantly Shi'ite south.
Fadil and his unit won high praise from the local US commander, who called them the most proficient of any Iraqi unit now taking charge.
"He is a fierce warrior, he is a patriot, his loyalty is to the country of Iraq," Colonel Michael Garrett, commander of the 25th infantry Division's Fourth Brigade, said of Fadil. Garrett's forces will be ready to help if needed and have posted combat advisers among the Fadil's units.
Another US commander who has run missions alongside Fadil's troops said there was only a negligible gap with US forces in discipline and ability.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Odom hesitated when asked whether that can be reproduced on a national scale.
"I've just got sort of one frame in the film," Odom said. "Beyond that, I really can't tell you what the next frames will be."