British hand security in Basra to Iraqi forces

Turnover called sign of progress

Turkish planes hit Kurds in Iraq

December 17, 2007|By Ann M. Simmons | Ann M. Simmons,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BASRA, Iraq -- During a low-key ceremony yesterday, Britain formally handed over control of security responsibility for Basra province to Iraqi authorities, marking a significant step toward Iraqi sovereignty.

"This day is a big day in the history of Basra and the history of Iraq," Iraq's national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubai,e told a group of at least 100 dignitaries and other guests gathered in the arrival lounge at the Basra airport. "It is a huge test for the Basraris to be in charge ... to determine their own fate and to rebuild the city."

Basra is the last of four southern provinces under British control to be returned to the Iraqis. Britain is expected to draw down its remaining 4,500 troops to about 2,500 by spring, and all have pulled back from central Basra city. They will enter the city, Iraq's second largest, only when a crisis occurs that exceeds the capacity of the Iraqi security forces, British officials said.

"I came to rid Basra of its enemies, and I now come to hand back Basra to its friends," said Maj. Gen. Graham Binns, the British military commander.

Binns commanded British troops when they first arrived in Basra in 2003, and yesterday he joined Basra Gov. Muhammad Musbih Wa'ili in signing a memorandum of understanding formally marking the hand-over of control.

Violence in Basra has abated to a manageable level in recent months, British military officials said, allowing for the move.

But the fact that the ceremony was held not in the city but in an airport lounge, with signs for "international baggage claim" and "passport control" leading to the venue, underscored the still-fragile nature of security in town.

The British have touted their withdrawal as an indication of the calmer situation on the ground and point to the transfer to Iraqi security forces as a model for establishing stability elsewhere in Iraq. They insist that the strategy has forced the provincial government to take charge and push warring Shiite Muslim militias to reconcile.

"Basra security institutions have proven that they are capable," Binns said, adding that British forces would continue to train the province's security forces.

"As you step up, we set back," Binns said.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, day-to-day commander in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad yesterday that the United States would be ready to respond to requests for help if needed, from Iraqi security forces or the British forces, but he indicated this would be limited to providing air support and intelligence.

"We will not intervene independently of the government of Iraq," Odierno said.

U.S. officials remained skeptical that Basra could serve as a model for the rest of the nation, because Basra's largely Shiite ethnic composition is different than that of other areas where Shiites and Sunni Arab militants repeatedly have clashed.

The battle for political supremacy mainly has been among three rival Shiite groups: the fiercely anti-U.S. Mahdi Army of popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, whose Badr wing controls law enforcement across much of the south; and the smaller Fadhila party.

Elsewhere, Turkey said dozens of its warplanes bombed Kurdish rebel targets as deep as 60 miles inside northern Iraq for three hours yesterday in the largest aerial attack in years against the outlawed separatist group. An Iraqi official said the planes attacked several villages, killing one woman, and the rebels said two civilians and five rebels were killed.

In the nighttime offensive, the fighter jets hit rebel positions close to the border with Turkey and in the Qandil mountains, which straddle the Iraq-Iran border, the Turkish military said in a statement posted on its Web site. It said the operation was directed against the rebels and not against the local population.

As many as 50 fighter jets were involved in the airstrikes, private NTV television and other media reported. Turkey has recently attacked the area with ground-based artillery and helicopters and there have been some unconfirmed reports of airstrikes by warplanes.

Ann M. Simmons writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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