Iraqi government officials announced Wednesday that Britain would hand over security for Basra – the last area of Iraq still under British control – on Sunday, even as a triple bombing in southern Iraq raised questions about the ability of Iraqi security forces to control violence in the region.
The announcement of the date of the handover followed a surprise visit by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Basra Province, reports the British Broadcasting Corp. The 4,500 British troops still in Iraq will now focus on training Iraqi forces, though troop numbers are set to be halved starting spring of next year.
The UK's Maj Mike Shearer said the setting of a date for the handover to Iraqi authorities was a "very positive step in the right direction"...
"That's a very positive step in the right direction and clear recognition that the security situation is such that the Iraqi security forces are able to take on that responsibility."
... Mr Brown said Iraq now had a democratic government and that violence was down 90% in recent months.
British forces had begun to prepare for the final handover in September, when they withdrew from the provincial capital to Basra airport, reported The Christian Science Monitor. The handover is being seen as a "milestone," reports The Times (London), which noted that the "symbolic shift" will see British forces focus increasingly on "economic development and reconstruction rather than fighting insurgents."
Some local Iraqi citizens express alarm at the thought of British soldiers relinquishing control of security in Basra to the Iraqi army and police, which are often accused of colluding with or turning a blind eye to militia activity. But Iraqi leaders and British commanders insist that the time is right.
"The battle has not ended," said Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister. "We have not entirely defeated those who do not wish to see the province progress, but we have taken major steps in this direction and we are winning," he told an economic development forum at Basra Airport, attended by senior British, Iraqi and American officials.
The economic conference "saw a string of new initiatives unveiled aimed at breathing life back into Basra's battered but potentially hugely profitable economy," the BBC reports. However, the difficulties ahead were highlighted by the fact that senior British officials attending the conference held near the airport could not enter the city due to security concerns, said the BBC.
Violence has abated since British troops quit the city center, and Shiite militias that have been battling for control of the city recently proclaimed a truce, reports Reuters.
"Our forces in Basra have tanks, armoured vehicles and planes. We are backed directly by the interior minister and the prime minister," Lieutenant-General Mohan al-Firaiji, head of Basra's security operations, told Reuters in an interview.
He said leaders of the city's main rival armed Shi'ite factions met in a mosque last week and signed a pact to cooperate with security forces and not carry guns.
... For much of the year, the situation deteriorated. British troops who patrolled Basra came under escalating bombing and mortar attacks until September, when they quit their base in the city centre for the airbase on its outskirts.
Since then, with no more British troops in the city to attack, violence has abated. Many ordinary Basrawis say the city feels safer and government troops appear to be in charge.
Faction leaders, once at daggers drawn, have taken to making conciliatory remarks.
But despite some improvement in security, violence between Iraqis continues and the city is off-limits to Westerners, reports the Financial Times.
Some have suggested that Basra, which produces more than 90 per cent of government revenues and is home to 70 per cent of Iraq's proven oil reserves, could one day be comparable to Dubai or Kuwait. However, if the region is to move forward the Iraqi parties will have to work together.
The handover announcement came on the same day as a triple bombing killed at least 27 and wounded 150 in Amara in southern Iraq, where local authorities had recently taken over security responsibility from the British, reports The New York Times.
The triple bombing, in Amara, the capital of Maysan Province, was one of the deadliest attacks in Iraq in months and highlighted both the volatility of the south and the potential risks of turning over security to Iraqi forces in areas where tensions still run high.
During a visit to Basra, [Prime Minister] Maliki said the Amara attack was a "desperate attempt" to distract the public from broader security improvements in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. He called on Amara residents to suppress the urge for vengeance.
... It was not clear, however, who was responsible for the car bombs.
Typically, Sunni extremist groups are blamed for dramatic car bombs here, but Amara is tightly controlled by Shiites. Sitting in an oil-rich province that borders Iran, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, it is the home of rival Shiite militias — the Mahdi Army, loyal to Moktada al-Sadr, and gunmen aligned with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which residents described as the city's dominant political force.
Opposition Liberal Democrat leader Vincent Cable responded to Wednesday's handover announcement by blaming Brown for the "continuing tragedy in Iraq," the BBC reports.
The British government has also been criticized for its treatment of the Iraqi translators it employs. More than half of the 200 interpreters on their list have been denied asylum, The Times (London) reported.
Iraqi interpreters hoping to resettle in Britain are being warned that the number accepted will be strictly limited and many will be unable to enter the country before summer 2009. The criteria laid down in the letter sent to former Iraqi employees by the British Government sets out the hurdles to be cleared before they can be considered refugees. They are being offered a financial package or resettlement in Britain, but not both.