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U.S. Marines hand control of south-central Iraq to Poles Wednesday

BABYLON, Iraq — The top U.S. commander in Iraq on Wednesday transferred control over parts of the south-central zone of the country to an international force led by Poland, a step in Washington's campaign to bring more nations into the U.S. occupation.

But in a sign of how violence has plagued U.S. plans, American Marines postponed the handover of the city of Najaf, where last week a car bomb at a Shiite shrine killed between 85 and 125 people.

In Baghdad, the interim Governing Council swore in 17 members of the newly appointed 25-member Cabinet that will begin taking over many of the day-to-day duties of governing the country from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority.

Each of those sworn in Wednesday placed their hand on the Quran and promised "to do my utmost to serve and protect Iraq, its people, land and sovereignty, as God is my witness."

Eight members were out of the city and could not attend. The U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, was present but made no remarks.

Near Tikrit, 120 miles north of Baghdad, U.S. military police, working with Iraqi police, raided three farm houses in a search for weapons and opposition suspects.

"The idea is to get the Iraqi police up front and get them to handle the raids," Lt. Col. David Poirier, commander of the 720th Military Police Battalion in Tikrit, told The Associated Press.

"We could go in and break in the doors, but this way it's a gentler, kinder approach. We're there making sure that nothing goes wrong," he said.

Capt. Omar Lomas, 31, of McAllen, Texas, said soldiers and Iraqi police seized four AK-47 rifles, ammunition and explosives, but made no arrests.

"The Iraqi police have been very helpful," he said.

Faced with continuing attacks on its troops and its Iraqi allies and with mounting costs of the occupation, the United States is trying to persuade more nations to contribute money and troops to Iraq.

Poland and the other nations contributing to the new 9,500-strong international force agreed to do so under the ultimate command of U.S. forces. But to draw in further international support, Washington has had to consider creating a United Nations force and giving the world body more say in running the country.

With the ceremony at their headquarters near the ancient city of Babylon, the Polish-led force from 17 nations formally took up security duties over a 31,000-square mile belt of Iraq south of Baghdad. Their assigned zone includes the towns of Najaf, Karbala and Hilla and a region extending to the Iranian border.

"It's indeed a historic moment. It's a moment where the international community has stepped up and turned a 9-nation coalition into a 30-nation coalition which sends an unmistakable message," the top U.S. commander Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez told troops from the participating countries, ranging from Latvia to Mongolia. Four other nations are giving logistical support to the force.

But the U.S. military delayed the handover of Najaf for at least two weeks, in an attempt to maintain stability after Friday's blast at the Imam Ali mosque, which killed a leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

"It's absolutely clear to a military commander that the most vulnerable period is when he is in a period of transition," Sanchez told reporters after the ceremony. "We will reassess the situation in about two weeks. ... We hope at that point to complete the transfer of authority." A Spanish brigade taking part in the international force is due to control the city.

Maj. Gen. Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, commander of the international force, said his troops will not be occupiers.

"Even though we have different uniforms and different flags, we are unified by one purpose. That purpose is to help the Iraqi people wipe out the traces of Saddam Hussein's monstrous dictatorship and build a new basis of peaceful existence."

Tensions remain high in Najaf. Al-Hakim's brother, a member of the U.S.-picked Governing Council, angrily denounced the occupation during the funeral Tuesday and demanded U.S. troops leave Iraq, saying they have failed to keep security.

Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim said Wednesday that Shiites should not fight the Americans, but he suggested that the Badr Brigade — the armed wing of the political movement he and his brother founded — had taken up weapons again in defiance of U.S. orders.

"If the allied forces are unable to take actions against such crimes, we will defend ourselves," al-Hakim told reporters, referring to the Najaf car bomb.

Abdel-Aziz succeeded his slain brother as leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, formed as an anti-Saddam group when the brothers and many other leading Iraqi Shiites were in Iranian exile.

Also Tuesday, a car bomb struck police headquarters in central Baghdad, killing an Iraqi policeman and wounding at least 13 others in the latest attack apparently targeting Iraqis working with the American-led occupation.

Acting police chief Hassan al-Obeidi, who has offices in the headquarters building and is closely associated with the occupation authority, was not in his office at the time. There were U.S. soldiers in the nearby Baghdad police academy, but they also were unharmed.

"The explosion was far from my office. I don't think I was the target," al-Obeidi told The Associated Press. "We will catch whoever did this and punishment will be harsh." He said FBI agents were helping the investigation.

The U.S. military reported the deaths of three more American soldiers on Tuesday — two of them in the bombing of a convoy south of Baghdad. One when a helicopter made a hard landing and rolled over.

The number of American forces killed in the Iraq war is 286. Of those, 148 died since May 1 when President Bush declared an end to major fighting. Seventy soldiers have died in combat since the declaration.

Besides the Imam Ali mosque, terrorist bombings in August also struck at the Jordanian Embassy and the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, killing a total of 42 people.