Basra handed back to Iraqis

British forces ceremonially transfer control of province's security to Iraqi forces.

    British troops will from now on provide specialist
    back-up to Iraqi forces, such as border patrol [AFP]

    Mixed feelings

    Sunday's handover elicited mixed reactions.

    Mustafa Alani, a military analyst, told Al Jazeera: "The handover is not to the [Iraqi] government, it is to the militias, to the criminal groups and to the Iranian influence".

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    "The Iraqi people will lose if we abandon them before the Iraqi government is

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    He said "British forces were under-powered and never interfered in the control of the city".

    Many residents of Basra, though, expressed optimism regarding the handover.

    "Today we are happy security will be handed over from the occupying British forces to Iraqi forces. You can see this happiness on the faces of everyone. It feels like a heavy burden has been lifted off our chests," Adel Jassem, a local teacher, said.

       

    Located in the south, the province is Iraq's main oil export hub and home to the country's only major port.

     

    Power is split among three main factions in the troubled province.

     

    Loyalists of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader, have wide influence on the streets; the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council has clout in the security forces; and the smaller Fadhila party controls the governorate.

     
    Shadow of violence
     
    Factional fighting has recently declined but a triple car bombing in neighbouring Amara on Wednesday underscored the region's volatility.
     

    A scaled-down British force will remain in southern Iraq and will be confined to a single base at Basra's airport, with a small training mission and a rapid reaction team on standby.

     

    They will provide specialist back-up to Iraqi forces, such as patrolling the border with Iran and carrying out economic activities.

       

    Brown has said he would scale down British troop strength in Iraq [AFP]

    Britain now has 4,500 troops in Iraq, less than a tenth of the force that in 2003 Tony Blair, the then-prime minister, dispatched to help topple Saddam Hussein.

     

    Gordon Brown, Blair's successor, has said the force will shrink to just 2,500 by mid-2008.

     

    British forces began handing over the southern provinces last year but suffered ever deadlier attacks as they withdrew.

       

    Of the 134 British service members killed by enemy action in Iraq, more than 30 died in a four-month period from April-July this year after Blair announced plans to withdraw from Basra.

     
    British troops have been in Basra province since April 2003, when 40,000 soldiers were deployed as part of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

    SOURCE: Agencies and Al Jazeera


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