Iraqi forces prepare to take control of the province’s security from British forces.
Major Mike Shearer, a senior spokesman for the British army, told Al Jazeera: “[The Iraqi security forces] have been policing their own streets and province for a number of months now. So life for British soldiers in Basra won’t change that much.
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”.
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.
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.
|Brown has said he would scale down British troop strength in Iraq [AFP]|
They will provide specialist back-up to Iraqi forces, such as patrolling the border with Iran and carrying out economic activities.
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.
Force to shrink
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.