NAJAF, Iraq (Army News Service, Dec. 21, 2006) - The security and governance of nearly one-million An Najaf citizens was officially transferred to Provincial Iraqi control in a ceremony here in southern Iraq Dec. 20.

"Today we are saying no to sectarianism, and no to terrorism, and yes for peace, and yes for freedom, and yes for democracy," said As'ad Abu-Galal al-Taai, the governor of An Najaf province, to a crowd of several hundred Iraqis gathered in the city's soccer stadium.

In June 2005, Iraq's Prime Minister announced a joint decision between the Iraqi government and Multinational Forces-Iraq to systematically hand over security responsibilities to Iraq's provinces to provincial civil authorities under the control of each province's governor.

"This is a terrific success for Iraq," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, deputy commanding general - support for Multinational Division-Baghdad. "It is a major step forward in improving security and strengthening the authority of Iraq."

An Najaf is the third of Iraq's 18 provinces to be transferred to Provincial Iraqi Control and is Iraq's fourth largest province. The coalition transferred full Provincial Iraqi control to the provinces of Al Muthanna and Dhi Qar earlier this year. Since then, local police and military forces have had full responsibility for security with little coalition assistance.

"I am proud of you as we assume control of our destiny," said As'ad. "With the help of the people, we will have security as promised by the constitution and the elections. This is a day of celebration."

For three-and-a-half years, the Iraqi people in An Najaf worked alongside coalition forces training, equipping and mentoring the police and army to take responsibility for the security and enforcement of rule of law.

"Transferring the security for An Najaf is an indication of the increased capability of the Iraq police and the Iraqi army," Brooks said. "Their capabilities grow every day, and civil governance will take the lead for providing the provinces security enforcement needs."

Najaf , the provincial capital of An Najaf province, is approximately 100 miles south of Baghdad. It is home to one of Islam's, especially Shia's, holiest sites -- the Imam Ali Shrine. The shrine is the burial site of Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph. Every year, nearly one million Shia Muslims make a pilgrimage to Najaf. It's estimated only Mecca and Medina receive more Muslim pilgrims.

"More pilgrims will be able to enjoy An Najaf's religious sites through it's protected roadways and airport," said Brooks. "In turn, this will continue stability and increase the quality of life for all residents."

Shia religious activities were severely restricted under Saddam Hussein's regime and observances such as Ashura have only recently been allowed thanks to the democratically elected Iraqi government. Ashura is a Shia religious ceremony mourning the death of Imam Ali, held each year at the conclusion of the Hajj season.

With the change in status, coalition security forces are helping local police and the Iraqi military take full control of security in the region.

"I am proud of the Iraqi police and the Iraqi Army, as they now assume full responsibility for all law enforcement and security activities in the An Najaf province," Brooks said. "It will be the citizens of An Najaf who must also work with the police to maintain and build upon safe communities, and to enjoy the blessings of peace. The future of Iraq depends on its people."