British Military to Relinquish Basra to Iraqi Troops

British military forces are set to formally hand control of Basra to the Iraqi. It will be mostly ceremonial, since Iraqi soldiers and police effectively took control of the province months ago. British and American officials are hoping to replace their military aid with economic and political assistance.

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This weekend, British forces hand over formal control of Basra, Iraq's oil-rich southern province to the Iraqis. This is the last of four provinces that Britain has controlled since the U.S.-led invasion. The handover will be mostly ceremonial since Iraqi soldiers and police effectively took control of the province months ago.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Basra where officials gathered yesterday to mark the handover.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: The high-ranking officials arrived by the planeload under heavy guard at Basra International Airport. There was Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on his first trip to Basra in nearly a year. Accompanying him were members of his Cabinet, the special U.N. representative for Iraq, the British secretary of state for international development and ambassadors from key Western partners in Iraq.

The group, which met with Basra leaders, praised the upcoming British handover of Basra to Iraqi forces. The officials stressed it was time to focus on boosting business and capital investment, not war. A slide show played out in graphs and pictures how the province stands to benefit its local, political and tribal leaders play their cards right, especially with some $6 million the Iraqi government has pledged to invest in roads, bridges, electricity, water and services geared in the next year. The money is part of $19 billion that Maliki says his government plans to spend in 2008 on capital improvements across Iraq. All of it aimed at improving Iraqi lives and spring business and foreign investment.

Prime Minister NOURI AL-MALIKI (Iraq): (Speaking in Arabic)

NELSON: I'm glad to stand in Basra to announce this reconstruction investment program, Maliki said. If it was successful in Basra, the heart of Iraq, then it will be successful all across Iraq.

But as Maliki and others noted, success will take more than money, that it will take political and tribal cooperation, and security. All of which in Basra, are at best, fleeting. The predominantly Shiite city, a stone's throw from the Iranian border is plagued by deadly power struggles among Islamist groups. The situation is so volatile that this economic forum was held at the airport instead of downtown.

But British officials who've been in charged of security say things are better than they were, that bombing and gun attacks have subsided since British troops pulled back a few months ago.

Major General Graham Binns commands British troops here.

Major General GRAHAM BINNS (British Commander, Basra, Iraq): I'm not pretending that it's perfect. I'm not pretending that it's ideal. What I am saying, and the Iraqis agree, is that the problems can only be solved by Iraqis in the future. And it's time that they step up and took responsibility for their own city.

NELSON: That three car bombs blew up at neighboring Nisan province yesterday, killing dozens, suggest that Iraqi forces have a long way to go. The British turned over security responsibilities in their province to Iraqis in April.

Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih.

Mr. BARHAM SALIH (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): We are in a position, according to our military commanders who assumed belief, but that does not mean that we will not be in need of the help of the international community.

NELSON: Salih says Western help with investment in Basra's port and services like hospitals and schools will be more than military intervention to fixing Iraq's problems.

Mr. SALIH: But still we have to do a lot of work in terms of developing capacity and making sure that the money will be spent wisely and in a proper way.

NELSON: How do you that? I mean, you'll be…

Mr. SALIH: How do we do - with difficulty.

NELSON: We're here at the airport…

Mr. SALIH: Yeah. Sure.

NELSON: …having the economic forum instead of inside Basra.

Mr. SALIH: Sure. No, no, I know. And the reason we are here because we have so many dignitaries. Do you want to risk other people's lives just for the sake of showing in Basra or not? All of us know this is what (unintelligible) of a lot of challenges.

NELSON: Residents reached by phone in the city of Basra also expressed cautious optimism. And at least one of the groups accused of stirring up trouble in Basra pledged to rein in its militia following Sunday's handover.

Sheik WALI AL-HUSAWI(ph) (Official, Muqtada al-Sadr Movement): (Speaking in Arabic)

NELSON: Sheik Wali al-Husawi, a top official in radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Basra office, says in a phone interview that they've ordered their members to follow all of the rules, even to obey traffic signals to show their support for Iraqi forces.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Basra.

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