British troops on Wednesday handed over their last base in the southern city of Basra, withdrawing to an airport outside the city and leaving it to Shiite Muslim political parties and militias, whose power struggles have often spilled over into violence.
The British troops are hoping their exit from Iraq’s second-largest city will let Iraqi authorities take charge and resolve simmering conflicts. But Iraqi civilians and analysts said that Basra had become a focal point of Shiite infighting and corruption involving the region’s lucrative oil fields, which account for the majority of the estimated 1.5 million barrels of oil Iraq exports daily.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has struggled to bring the area under his control since taking office last year. Basra Gov. Mohammed Waeli was sacked by Maliki after the provincial council voted to dismiss him this summer amid charges of corruption, including oil smuggling. But Waeli has defied Maliki’s order.
The 550 British soldiers at Basra Palace had moved out Monday, but the onetime residence of Saddam Hussein was officially handed over Wednesday. It is the third main base in Basra the British have exited this year.
“Having a foreign army on the streets is not going to be part of the end stage here; the nationalist feeling is strong here and people do not tolerate foreigners too kindly,” said British military spokesman Maj. Mike Shearer.
He denied that the British withdrawal ran counter to U.S. policy, which has centered on a troop buildup in and around Baghdad.
“We don’t have insurgent forces in Basra, . . . we have gangster thug-type criminals. That can be handled by local authorities,” Shearer said.
Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, told reporters Tuesday that the British move was a “solid plan.”
But away from the battlefield, a war of words has begun between former British and U.S. military officials. Retired U.S. Gen. Jack Keane, who was advising the Pentagon on Iraq this year, has publicly criticized the British performance in Basra, saying they failed to deploy enough troops to stabilize the region. In turn, the former head of the British army, retired Gen. Mike Jackson, has derided the U.S. policy in Iraq as “fatally flawed.”
In Baghdad, Maliki congratulated Iraqis on taking full control of Basra and urged them to “hold on to national unity and to seek the country’s high interests rather than the narrow group and political interests.”
National security advisor Mowaffak Rubaie, who attended the transfer ceremony in Basra, urged residents to keep the peace. “I am calling on the people of Basra to cooperate and leave [behind] the division and conflict,” he said.
Last year, Rubaie estimated, 60,000 barrels of oil were smuggled daily from the south by a combination of “warlords, militias, organized crime and some political parties.”
Maliki has dispatched two generals to bring order to the city: Mohan Freiji, described by some Western officials as possibly having links to the Badr Organization militia, is in charge of Basra’s security plan, and Jalil Khalaf, a confidant of the defense minister, leads the police corps.
Until recently, Basra’s security forces had been tarnished by controversy. Last Christmas, the British blew up the Serious Crimes Unit police station, which allegedly was being used by local militias for illegal detentions and torture. In the spring, the Defense Ministry removed the commander of the Iraqi army’s 10 Division, Gen. Abdul Latif, for failing to act decisively against militias and criminal gangs in Basra.
As the national government attempts to assert itself, Britain hopes to reduce its 5,500 forces to 5,000 by the end of the year. It wants to transfer responsibility for security in Basra province to the Iraqi government this fall. Since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, 168 British troops have died in Iraq, according to the website icasualties.org.
“Nothing has changed by way of what we do. The only difference is that we have reduced operation forces in the city of Basra to allow local forces to take the lead,” Shearer, the British spokesman, said. “We will come in if needed.”
Despite the assurances, residents and analysts fear that the situation could become more volatile.
Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs who runs Historiae.org, a website focusing on Basra and southern Iraq, worries that Shiite rivalries in the region could worsen. He says the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council could use the Iraqi army against the rival political group, the Fadila al Islamiya party, and against Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
“There is a real possibility that a conflict may erupt in Basra between SIIC and an alliance of the Sadrists and Fadila,” Visser said.
Residents said the British forces had become a nonentity in the city, rarely intervening during vicious battles among political factions.
“The British forces did not have any active role in security in the city. The parties’ conflicts have not stopped since 2003. Many armed clashes have taken place in Basra and no British interference was witnessed in such cases,” said Omar Dawood, a textile merchant.
It was uncertain whether the British relocation to the airport would bring them peace and quiet. The airport is regularly hammered by mortar fire. Meanwhile, the Mahdi Army was busy celebrating the British exit from the palace as a military victory.
“The Mahdi Army’s role of resistance. . . is what forced them to leave the city,” said local Sadr official Sheik Ali Suadi.
One Western official said the violence in Basra would calm down only when political parties and smugglers worked out how to split the province’s oil riches.
In other developments Wednesday, Prime Minister Maliki met with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the reclusive spiritual leader of Iraq’s majority Shiite community. Maliki, also a Shiite, said he discussed the possibilities of appointing replacements for some of the 17 ministers who have walked out of the Cabinet in recent months, or forming a new technocrat-based government.
Times staff writers Sam Enriquez, Saif Rasheed, Wael Alhafith and special correspondents contributed to this report.