(by David Axe, Dec. 17, 2007 , WashingtonTimes.com) – BASRA, Iraq – Britain yesterday turned over responsibility for security to Iraqi forces in Basra, concluding its principal mission in the last of four provinces that were placed under British command after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
A reduced British force of fewer than 5,000 soldiers – soon to be cut to 3,500 – will now confine itself largely to a base outside the provincial capital, providing training and standing by to assist Iraqi troops when needed.
Security for the event was tight, and no members of the Iraqi public were invited to the ceremony at the international-departure lounge of Basra’s airport, reflecting tight security measures in the face of continuing unrest.
Shi’ite militias stepped up mortar attacks in the days preceding the turnover, firing a dozen mortar rounds into the airport Friday. No coalition personnel were killed, but about 175 British soldiers have died in Iraq since March 2003.
In the city, Iraqi security forces patrolled in their largest numbers since the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein, parading along the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway in heavy tanks, armored vehicles and pickup trucks with mounted machine guns.
“This is a special day. It presages the independence of all of Iraq,” said Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie.
The turnover marks the end of Britain’s nearly five-year-old principal mission in southern Iraq, a region the British previously occupied during World War II to prevent the oil-rich country from siding with the Germans. Basra’s ports and oil fields generate more than three-quarters of Iraq’s revenue today.
Since March 2003, British and coalition troops have struggled with the region’s widespread corruption and devastated infrastructure. Local militias dominated by Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia rose up to contest the foreign presence and are believed to have heavily infiltrated Basra’s police force.
At yesterday’s ceremony, Mr. al-Rubaie said that local security forces, supported by the British, would continue the fight against the militias. “We are not here declaring victory,” he said.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who also attended the ceremony, described the transfer of security responsibility as “a testament to the growing capacity of the Iraqi security forces.”
“This remains a violent society, whose tensions need to be addressed,” he added in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. “But they need to be addressed by Iraqi political leaders, and it is politics that is going to have to come to the fore in the months and years ahead.”
Bush administration officials have been reluctant to criticize the drawdown of British forces, despite fears in some quarters that they are leaving too soon.
Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad that the turnover was “the right thing to do” but he worried the local militias were too much under the sway of Tehran.
“What we have to watch is undue Iranian influence,” the Associated Press quoted him as saying.
British officials said key units would remain in Basra, including training teams, helicopter squadrons and a small “overwatch” force primed to respond to any calls for help from Iraqi forces.
The turnover takes place more than a year after British forces staged what commanders at the time called a “surge” into downtown Basra to retake neighborhoods controlled by the militias.
Operation Sinbad succeeded in destroying much of the militia leadership while kick-starting reconstruction projects. The operation presaged the similar surge of U.S. forces into Baghdad and other northern and central cities.
But the British offensive provoked powerful counterattacks, including mortar barrages and roadside bombings. British forces evacuated their downtown Basra bases during the summer and have not entered the city since.
Copyright 2007 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of the Washington Times. This reprint does not constitute or imply any endorsement or sponsorship of any product, service, company or organization. Visit the website at www.washingtontimes.com.
1. What is significant about Britain turning over responsibility for security in Basra to Iraqi forces?
2. What importance do Iraqis place on the British hand over of control of Basra, according to Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie?
3. During what other time, and for what reason, did British troops occupy Basra?
4. Why is Basra important to Iraq’s economy?
5. What problems have the British faced in Basra?
6. Which key British units will remain in Basra, and for what purpose will they do so?
7. What successes and failure did the British have as a result of their Operation Sinbad?
8. Time will tell if the British turned over control of Basra to Iraqi security forces too soon. What is your opinion of the British turning over control now?
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