"This day is a big day in the history of Basra and the history of Iraq," Iraqi national security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie 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 Basrawis 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 given back to the Iraqis. Britain had already pulled its troops out of Basra city to the outlying airport and is expected to draw down the remaining 4,500-member force to about 2,500 by spring. They will enter the city, Iraq's second-largest, only if a crisis occurs that exceeds the capacity of the Iraqi 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 general officer commanding.
Binns led British troops when they first arrived in Basra in 2003, and on Sunday he joined Basra Gov. Mohammed Waili in signing a Memorandum of Understanding marking the transfer. Violence in Basra has abated to a manageable level, 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 state of security in town.
The British have touted their withdrawal as an indication of the calmer situation and point to the transfer to Iraqi security forces as a model for establishing stability elsewhere in Iraq. They say 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 the British would continue to train the province's security forces.
"Our help will continue to be one of assistance, not interference; to support, not to direct; to listen, not to ignore," Binns told the attendees. "This will be achieved by actions, not just by words. This is our promise to you, the people of Basra.
"As you step up, we set back," Binns added.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, day-to-day commander in Iraq, told reporters Sunday in Baghdad 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 that this would be limited to providing air support and intelligence.
"We will not intervene independently of the government of Iraq," Odierno said. "If they could not handle the problem in Basra, they would come to us and ask us for assistance."
But U.S. officials remain skeptical that Basra can serve as a model for the nation because Basra has a largely homogenous Shiite population, whereas other areas are home to both Shiites and Sunni Arabs.
In recent months, the oil-rich south has seen sporadic fighting between rival Shiite factions vying for power. The violence has included the slaying of two governors and a number of senior security officials, and car bombings that killed at least 28 people in Maysan province Wednesday.
The battle for political supremacy has been mainly between three rival Shiite groups: The Mahdi Army of popular anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada Sadr, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council's Badr Organization, which controls law enforcement across much of the south, and the smaller Fadila al Islamiya party.
Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said maintaining the peace in Iraq's south would depend largely on "what Iran can and will do."
"Iran has ties with Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps, as well as Fadila party in Basra," Nasr said, adding that Iran has so far kept the warring factions in a truce, therefore helping keep Basra under control.
But "the potential for fighting is great if Iran loses control or decides to change strategy," he said. "Basra is a test of Iranian influence and intentions. That is a critical factor."
British military officials have acknowledged that they have been talking with Sadr's militia -- considered to be the most powerful of the factions -- in hopes of bringing the group into the political process in Basra.