The new US Defence Secretary has paid a surprise visit to Baghdad, just two days after being sworn into office. Robert Gates was meeting US commanders and Iraqi political leaders to help devise a new strategy the Bush administration is planning to put in place.
But, as he began his visit, there was no let-up in the bloodshed. Today at least 23 people were killed across Iraq. The Pentagon says violence there is at its highest level since 2004.
Against this backdrop, US troops have handed over security control of Najaf province to Iraqi forces.
The move has been hailed by the Americans as a major step in strengthening Iraq’s government as it seeks to stop sectarian violence.
Amid tight security, the ceremony took place in a carnival atmosphere at a football stadium.
Najaf is only the third region to be transferred to Iraqi control. Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said Iraqis can take control of all 18 provinces by June.