(AFP) – Dec 16, 2007
BASRA, Iraq (AFP) — Iraq formally took security control of the southern oil province of Basra from British forces on Sunday, paving the way for Britain to sharply reduce its nearly 5,000-strong troop presence.
"The handover means victory for Iraq and defeat to its enemies," Iraq's national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubaie said at the handover ceremony.
"This achievement is one of the main achievements of the national unity government. It has come after sacrifices and direct support from our sons and all Iraqis. Our biggest challenge is to maintain the security in Basra."
Basra, the ninth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be returned to local control by the US-led coalition, is the fourth and final province under British control since the 2003 invasion to be transferred.
The ceremony saw Iraq showcasing its military equipment as soldiers paraded in front of a palace of the executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Iraqi forces were heavily deployed in Basra to thwart any insurgent attacks, while helicopters patrolled the skies, an AFP correspondent said.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband hailed the transfer as "a major step forward."
"It is a testament to the growing capacity of the Iraqi security forces, and to Iraqi readiness to step up and assume responsibility," he said. "I want Iraqis to know... Britain remains a committed friend."
British troops were greeted as liberators when they rolled into Basra but never subsequently succeeded in winning over the predominantly Shiite population. Few residents will mourn their departure.
"It's our wish to see the Iraqis take responsibility for security in place of the British. They never understood anything except the language of the bullet," complained Abu Ahmed, a 55-year-old parking attendant.
A BBC opinion poll found that the vast majority of Basra residents share that sentiment -- 86 percent of respondents said they saw the British as a negative influence. Only two percent thought their presence positive.
In a statement issued in London, Defence Secretary Des Browne said the transfer of Basra to Iraqi control was a "tribute" to British forces who have lost at least 174 dead since 2003.
"But we are not yet at the end of the road. Our role in Basra is changing to one of overwatch but our commitment to Iraq is undimmed," he said.
US officials in Baghdad also welcomed the handover but warned that more needs to be done.
"The provincial and military leadership in Basra still have work to do and we will assist as requested," said a joint statement by the US charge d'affaires in Baghdad, Patricia Butenis, and General David Petraeus, head of coalition forces in Iraq.
The almost exclusively Shiite city of 1.7 million people has been riven by rivalries between Shiite militias, but a feared explosion of violence once British troops pulled back has failed to materialise.
Rubaie warned that the performance of the provincial authorities was being watched.
"The people of Basra will witness what you are going to do with security... whether you will support the militias, whether you will fight the corruption, whether you will cooperate with terrorism," he said.
The Basra governor pledged to enforce the law regardless of factional loyalties. "We are ready to stop anybody who tries to sabotage security," Mohammed al-Waili told the gathering.
The three main Shiite factions in the city -- the former rebel Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the radical movement of Moqtada al-Sadr and the smaller Fadhila party -- recently signed a peace agreement.
SIIC chief Abdel Aziz al-Hakim told AFP that peaceful rivalry between factions was "the very nature of democracy."
"Political competition will not transform itself into armed conflict," he vowed.
Haider al-Jabri, an aide to Sadr, said the transfer of Basra's security was a "positive step."
"This is the first step towards a full withdrawal of the occupier but we also hope that Iraqi forces conduct their job in a professional way and without any bias."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who made a surprise visit to Basra on December 9, said in October that British troop numbers would be cut by more than half to 2,500 by early next year.
Following the handover, British troops will provide specialist backup to Iraqi forces, such as patrolling the border with Iran and carrying out economic activities.
But uncertainty remains over the ability of Iraqi security forces to keep a cap on factional rivalries in Basra, which produces more than 70 percent of Iraq's oil and whose port is used for 80 percent of crude exports.
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