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Basra residents blame UK troops

British troops on the outskirts of Basra
British troops withdrew to a base on the outskirts of Basra in September

More than 85% of the residents of Basra believe British troops have had a negative effect on the Iraqi province since 2003, an opinion poll suggests.

The survey for BBC Newsnight of nearly 1,000 people also suggests that 56% believe their presence has increased the overall level of militia violence.

Two-thirds think security will improve when the British hand back control of the province to Iraqi forces on Sunday.

The 4,500 British troops in Iraq will then focus on training Iraqi forces.

The move to Provincial Iraqi Control will eventually pave the way for UK troop numbers to be reduced to 2,500 from the spring.

Basra is the ninth of Iraq's 18 provinces to resume responsibility for its own security and the fourth to be handed over by British forces after Muthanna, Maysan and Dhi Qar.

Improvement expected

The Public Attitudes in Basra survey carried out for Newsnight by the UK-based polling agency, Opinion Research Business (ORB), interviewed a random sample of 922 adults across the southern city of Basra between 3 and 8 December.

Have UK troops had a positive or negative effect?

The survey's results suggest that only 2% of Basra residents believe that British troops have had a positive effect on the province since they helped the US overthrow Saddam Hussein in March 2003.

An overwhelming majority of 86% felt British troops had had a negative effect.

More than half felt the troops' presence had actually increased the overall level of militia violence over the past four years, while 14% said they believed the British forces had made no difference at all.

Looking to the future, a total of 83% of those surveyed said they wanted British troops to leave Iraq, including 63% who wanted them to leave the Middle East altogether.

However, nearly a tenth disagreed and said they would like the troops to remain in a camp on the outskirts of Basra, where they could be called upon in a time of crisis.

The majority of those questioned felt that once provincial control was handed over to local Iraqi security forces, the security situation would begin to improve.

Two-thirds felt security would improve in the short term, while 72% said it would improve in the long term. Only 5% said security would deteriorate following the withdrawal.

Correspondents say British troops have had a relatively minor influence on the security situation in Basra since they withdrew to a base at the airport outside the city in September.

'Women targeted'

BBC correspondent Andrew North said that, since the withdrawal, the militia has been orchestrating a campaign of violence against women.

He said most people believed the militia were responsible for the deaths of more than 40 women killed in the past few months.

But in a rare interview, Ali Al Saedi, of the Mehdi Army, denied targeting women.

"If this is true, this violence exists everywhere in America and Britain as well. Nobody can blame any block or movement for any of these crimes," he told BBC News.

Our correspondent also said the British base in Basra was still coming under attack from mortar fire.

Major Mike Shearer, a military spokesman in Basra, said: "It's about managing the security here.

"We never professed to be handing over a white-picketed Basra that resembled something out of the Stepford Wives."

More than 170 British servicemen and women have died while serving in Iraq since 2003.

Do you feel that once British troops hand over control to Iraqi forces in Basra, the security will improve, deteriorate or stay the same?

Short term and long term views




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How violence against women has increased in Basra



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