British turn over southern province to Iraq

Al-Sadr's followers filling power vacuum

April 19, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAMP SPARROWHAWK, Iraq -- With the flourish of a pen and a businesslike handshake, the British turned over yesterday a lawless stretch of desert and marshland to Iraqi provincial control.

Maysan was the fourth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed over and the third transferred by British-led troops. Britain has started reducing its forces in the four southern provinces even as the U.S. increases troop strength in Baghdad and elsewhere.

British officers say they are responding to a different set of problems from their American counterparts.

U.S. forces in Baghdad and neighboring provinces need the numbers to quell sectarian killing between Shiite Muslim and Sunni Arab fighters, a senior British officer said this week. But the south is overwhelmingly Shiite.

"Ninety percent of the violence down here is all against us," the officer said on condition of anonymity. "You put more people on the ground, you are creating more targets."

Maj. Gen. Jonathan Shaw, the British commander of Multi-National Force-South East, expressed confidence at yesterday's handover that Iraqi police and soldiers would keep a lid on what has been a turbulent province.

Anxious residents were not so sure. Followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia are rushing to fill the power vacuum, according to residents, leading on at least one occasion to pitched battles with police, whose upper echelons are dominated by the rival Shiite Badr Organization and its allied political party, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

"Our problem ... is that the militias are ruling," said Ali Hassan, a civil servant in the provincial capital, Amarah, who asked that his last name not be printed for security reasons. "If the British troops withdraw, then the Mahdi Army will be in control."

In a sign of lingering security concerns, the date and venue of yesterday's handover were released only after the event. The ceremony took place in a wind-swept military base on the southwest outskirts of Amarah. Guests were flown in on military helicopters; British and Iraqi soldiers were positioned on rooftops.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, canceled plans to attend without explanation.

Shaw and provincial Gov. Adil al-Maliki signed a memorandum of understanding and shook hands in front of a crowd of suited officials and tribal leaders in flowing robes. Tents decorated with garlands of fake flowers shielded guests from the sun. Soldiers, police, border officers and firemen marched by.

British officials said the occasion demonstrated the willingness of the Iraqi government to take responsibility for the difficult region. But they conceded that it would change little on the ground.

Prime Minister Tony Blair announced in February that Britain would reduce its troop levels by 1,600, to about 5,500, but would remain a presence in southern Iraq until at least 2008.

British forces quit their only permanent base in Maysan in August to focus on securing the Iranian border. Mobile units equipped with Range Rovers and light armored vehicles will continue to patrol the frontier after the handover, said Lt. Col. Kevin Stratford-Wright, a British military spokesman.

At the time, British officials described the move out of the heavily mortared Camp Abu Naji as a "tactical readjustment." But al-Sadr's militia proclaimed the pullout a victory, declaring in messages broadcast over loudspeakers throughout Amarah: "This is the first Iraqi city that has kicked out the occupier."

The next day, looters swarmed the place, making off with truckloads of booty, including doors, window frames and corrugated roofs. Iraqi soldiers tried to fend them off by firing into the air, but members of the jubilant crowd returned fire.

Violence flared again in October, when Mahdi Army militiamen overran and destroyed at least three police stations.

British officers noted that Iraqi authorities restored order by rushing in soldiers and a high-level security team from Baghdad to help negotiate a truce.

"At the end of the day, it was an Iraqi solution," said British Lt. Col. Richard Nixon-Eckersall, commander of the Queen's Royal Lancers Battlegroup in Maysan.

Residents said violence in Amarah had decreased since October.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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