By Muhanad Mohammed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq is delaying handing over security to police in major cities over concerns that some forces were not ready to take on a stubborn insurgency as the last U.S. troops prepare to withdraw at the end of 2011.
With its armed forces now more able to contain Sunni Islamist insurgents and Shi'ite militias, Iraq had planned at the end of the year to pull back troops from inside the cities and fully hand over to police run by the Interior Ministry.
"For the moment, we haven't reached the degree of assurance needed to fully hand over security matters to the interior ministry," Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, the spokesman for the Iraqi military's commander-in-chief said in an interview.
"Al Qaeda and other terrorists are still a source of concern for security forces. We still have work to do, and to close the gaps which the enemy is trying to access," Moussawi said.
He did not say when the full handover would happen, but added that Iraqi federal and local police were still not ready, often lacking intelligence capabilities to track insurgents in areas like Anbar, Diyala, Mosul and Salahuddin provinces.
Around 44,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq, mostly assisting and advising Iraqi forces after halting combat operations last year. But they are scheduled to pull out by the end of the year when a current security agreement expires at year-end.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are in talks over whether some U.S. troops will stay on as trainers, but the issue of whether American military in Iraq will receive legal immunity is complicating those negotiations.
Violence has declined sharply since the days of sectarian violence in 2006-2007 when Shi'ite and Sunni extremists killed thousands. But bombings, attacks and assassinations still occur daily.
Recent attacks and incidents in the Sunni heartland of Anbar in western Iraq and in the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala have also fueled worries of resurgent sectarian violence and tensions over who controls disputed areas.
(Reporting by Muhanad Mohammed; Editing by Patrick Markey)