British test for the Iraqis


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Maria Appakova)

British Armed Forces handed responsibility for security in Iraq's Basra province to Iraqi authorities on Sunday, December 16.

The handover ceremony reinstated Iraq's control over the southern part of the country. This is of symbolic significance for the Iraqis and may become the start of a new era in their history.

A total of 45,000 British troops took part in the military campaign in Iraq in 2003. Now there are about 5,000 British troops in Basra, and their strength will be reduced by half next spring. Now their task is to help train Iraqi security forces. The British will take part in military operations only in exceptional situations and on Iraqi request.

The Americans are also going to reduce their military contingent by the middle of 2008. It is hard to predict when this will happen and on what scale. Developments in Iraq's southern part after British troop withdrawal will largely determine Washington's plans.

The British departure is not a victory, but neither it is a stampede, as one of al-Qaeda leaders, Ayman al-Zawahiri, hastened to describe it and as the terrorists wanted to make it seem. As soon as London announced its intentions, British soldiers were targeted by militants - 13 British officers and men were killed in Iraq from April to July of this year, and 134 have died since the start of the military campaign in 2003. Several hours before the date of the farewell ceremony was announced in Basra, explosions killed 40 people and wounded more than a hundred in the neighboring province of Maysan. The British forces handed responsibility for security to the local forces in August. Troop withdrawal from other provinces was also accompanied by a surge of terrorist activity. The same may happen in Basra.

Although foreign military forces were always an irritant for the Iraqis, until now they added weight to the central government by representing its interests in different regions. Nobody can predict who will come to power after their departure and yet another conflict of interests. There are numerous causes for clashes. This is why recently Washington has insisted that the central government and the local authorities should search for compromise in the delimitation of terms of reference across the board - from security to oil. So far, they have not managed to achieve much success.

Nevertheless, London has still decided to transfer the powers to the local authorities. The British generals are saying with good reason that the situation will never be ideal. After all, Basra is a calmer place than other provinces, and the British will not be able to resolve the outstanding problems.

Relative tranquility is primarily linked to the predominantly Shiite population in the south. There have been no bloody religious clashes, but different Shiite parties continue fighting for power and none wants to retreat. They have their own military units, and they are establishing their order in cities and controlling the situation there. Even before the British withdrawal, the Iraqi police could not stop the murder of women whom militants charged with violating the norms of Sharia law. Hence, the presence of foreign military is useful.

What balance of forces will take shape without them? To all intents and purposes, the events in Basra will be indicative for the rest of the country. This is the most strategically important province out of all those which were left by the foreign troops. This is the heart of Iraq's future economic revival, a major oil producing and processing area. The city of Basra is second only to Baghdad. The local port on the Shatt-al-Arab River accommodates ships coming from the Gulf. In is not fortuitous that many foreign companies show much interest in Basra.

Future events in this province will show how interests of different groups will clash there and the ability of the authorities to manage without foreign military presence.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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