December 16, 2007

Brits Hand Basra Back To The Iraqis

The British completed their handoff of security responsibility in Basra to the central Iraqi government today, the last of four provinces under their control. The UK will leave 5,000 troops at their base near the Basra airport, but will only deploy on request from Baghdad. Otherwise, they will consider themselves "guests" and assist with training for Iraqi security forces:

Britain has formally handed control of Basra province to local Iraqi authorities, in a ceremony at Basra airport.

The ceremony - the first stage of a move to reduce UK troops to 2,500 by next spring - is a significant step in the formal handover of power in Iraq and the eventual withdrawal of all UK forces from the country.

The commander of British forces in Basra, Major General Graham Binns, said the city had been pulled from the grip of its enemies.

"I now formally hand it back to its friends," he said.

"We will continue to help train Basra security forces. But we are guests in your country, and we will act accordingly."

This is the big experiment. More than any of the other provinces returned to the control of the elected Iraqi central government, Basra has serious security issues that may result in open conflict on withdrawal. The withdrawal could also help stabilize the province and reduce the impetus for conflict. Americans will understandably watch the results with great interest.

Even the British are not terribly sanguine about the withdrawal. They note that Mahdi Army infiltration of the security forces remains a big problem in Basra. The militants can argue that they chased the British out of Basra with their mortar attacks on the dwindling forces there, increasing their credibility among the populace. The UK had no real options to respond with larger forces and the kind of aggressive tactics used by the US in the west, so this handoff has some elements of making the best out of a bad situation.

Still, Baghdad seems eager to prove itself in Basra, and it has a good chance of doing so. Its security forces have performed impressively, if not consistently, in the west. Basra is a more homogeneous population of Shi'ites, which should get along with the majority-Shi'ite central government. The British will remain in the area and can provide logistical and strategic support if necessary, at least in the short term.

At some point, the US will do the same in the west as the British have done in Basra, and the issues will look much the same. We will find out in the coming weeks and months whether Iraq can handle the responsibility for securing their nation without falling into sectarian strife.


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» Surrender in person? from Wise Golden Retriever
BASRA — Prime Minister Gordon Brown, making a surprise visit to troops in Iraq last week, announced that Basra will be handed back to Iraqi control within two weeks. Addressing troops at the Contingency Operating Base at Basra, where most of the Uni... [Read More]