Basra handed back to Iraqis

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

    British and Iraqi officials at the ceremony formalising the security handover of Basra on Sunday [AFP]

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    Fears for southern
    Iraq's stability

    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.
     
    "We will continue with the mentoring, monitoring and training of the Iraqi security forces as we have been doing for some time.
     
    "What is important now is that for the first time properly the Iraqi's have the responsibility, and so for the first time they will get the opportunity to find the Iraqi solutions to the Iraqi problems."
     
    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

    able to stand on its own."

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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.

       

    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.
     
    Shearer, the British force's spokesman, told Al Jazeera that the army's role is not completely finished.
     
    "In the memorandum of understanding there is the undertaking that if we are required to go back and re-intervene, we will do that at a level requested," he said.
     

    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.

     
    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: Al Jazeera and agencies


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