A largely symbolic ceremony was held in Basra Sunday marking the transfer of security in the province to Iraqis from British forces, who had previously withdrawn from the city in September.
The event shines the spotlight on the willingness – and ability – of the central government and the Iraqi Army to exert their authority over Iraq's most strategic and resource-rich city, which is now in the grips of feuding militias. Some of those militias are beholden to Iran, or are criminal gangs and religious fundamentalists who have stepped up in recent weeks their campaign of killings against women, minorities, and secular figures. Just last week, a Christian brother and sister were shot on a Basra street by gunmen posing as police.
The Basra hand-off to Iraqi forces (they can still call on multinational forces for help), would be the sixth and most significant so far among the nine predominantly Shiite provinces of central and southern Iraq. Counting the three Kurdish provinces, Iraqi forces are now in charge of nine of 18 provinces.
"The British legacy in Basra is criminal gangs, a corrupt and infiltrated police force, and borders open to all," says a senior Iraqi Army official in the province, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of his remarks. "We are planning an operation to pursue these death squads."
The official says such an offensive would require at least two more Iraqi Army brigades in addition to the three brigades now in Basra under the command of Lt. Gen. Mohan Hafidh, who was appointed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The current police chief, Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, was also appointed by Mr. Maliki in a bid to wrest control of a province that is home to the bulk of Iraq's vital oil reserves and its only seaports.
During Sunday's handover ceremony, the commander of British forces in Basra, Maj. Gen. Graham Binns, said he was confident that Iraqi forces would be up to the task. "I know they are ready [and] your leaders know they are ready," said General Binns, for whom this was an emotional moment since he was a brigade commander of British forces when they first entered Basra more than four years ago. It has been a controversial mission that has enjoyed little public support in Britain.
Britain has lost 174 military personnel in Iraq since 2003, and its forces have gone from being hailed for their soft approach toward the mostly Shiite population in the south to being under assault by ever-powerful militias. About 4,500 British soldiers remain in Basra at an air base next to the civilian airport. It is expected that this force will be reduced to 2,500 by next spring.
General Hafidh wasted no time in flexing his muscles, presiding immediately after the ceremony over a military parade in the former regime palace that had been vacated by the British in September.
But the general has his work cut out for him. Basra is in the midst of a power struggle among Shiite parties. The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) party and its Iran-friendly affiliate, Badr, are competing with the Fadhila party, which holds the governorship of the province, and the movement of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is regarded as the most potent force on the ground. Billboards glorifying Mr. Sadr's fighters are everywhere in the city.
The police force and most government institutions in the province have been divided by these forces into fiefdoms. This has created fertile grounds for gangs, smugglers, and extremists often bound by financial interests to these same forces. The province also hosts a strong Iranian presence, and is caught in an intra-Shiite struggle for control of central and southern Iraq.
At least 25 people were killed Wednesday in bombings in neighboring Maysan Province, where security was handed over by the British in April. It follows bloody intra-Shiite clashes in Karbala and Diwaniyah over the summer and the assassination of two southern governors.
"There is a realignment process under way within the Shiite camp, and it's going to be bloody sometimes," says Fakhri Karim, a newspaper publisher in Baghdad and adviser to Iraq's President Jalal Talabani.
The senior Basra-based Iraqi Army official says the province's feuding parties signed a pledge with Hafidh more than a week ago promising to cooperate with him. "What's important is implementation. There was a similar pledge in the past that went no where," he says.
But Basra residents and officials say the situation now is more dangerous than it was in late August, just before the British withdrew from the city. An interior ministry official based in Basra and in charge of police inspection in southern Iraq said during a recent visit to Baghdad that General Khalaf has made little headway in cleansing the police force of militia influence.
"Out of the 17,000 policemen in Basra, about 14,000 are beholden to militias and some to the Iranian secret service," he says, requesting anonymity. The British training of an estimated 10,000 policemen in the south, he adds, has done little to alter their loyalties.
During his trip to Basra on Dec. 9, Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown highlighted the training of 30,000 Iraqi policemen and soldiers as one of the achievements of his country's force and a compelling reason to transfer authority to the Iraqi side.
But this year alone at least 40 women have been killed by extremists in Basra for dressing or behaving in an "un-Islamic" way. Banners and graffiti threatening women have multiplied. "If with the British in the lead we were not safe, do you expect the Iraqis to stop the killing?" ponders a female resident who requested anonymity.
Christians, too, are being targeted. Last week Osama Farid's home was raided by gunmen posing as police, a security source said. They forced him to call his sister, Maysoun, and tell her to come home. Upon her arrival, both were abducted and their bullet-riddled bodies were found on the street.
This prompted a local priest, Imad al-Banna, to announce that Christmas for Basra's dwindling Christian community will be marked by a somber mass and no festivities.