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Uncertainty follows Basra exit

By Paul Wood
BBC News, Middle East correspondent

British soldier on burning tank
A defining image: a British soldier escapes a burning tank in Basra

On Sunday, Britain forces are due to hand over control of security in Basra, the last area of Iraq for which they still have responsibility.

It's hoped the transfer will allow British forces to draw down to some 2,500 by spring next year - from the current strength of 4,700. Our Middle East correspondent, Paul Wood, has written this assessment:

Basra: March, 2007. It was the third time the same black car had passed by at the end of the dusty street. The British patrol knew they were being scoped out, possibly for an ambush.

Sure enough, there was a muzzle flash from a roof-top. Then another from the opposite side of the road. The corporal doing top cover on our vehicle let loose with the heavy machine gun, bullet casings spitting out like a scene from a Tarantino movie.

A British general told me - privately and off the record of course - that the Army had been defeated, pure and simple
Paul Wood

Eventually, the smoke cleared. The snipers were gone. The British patrol had survived.

Combat footage

Back at the base, still flushed with adrenalin, the corporal approached our cameraman.

"Errr, you're not going to use that are you?" he asked. Yes, we said, it's some of the best combat footage from Basra there is. "Ahh, said the corporal, the trouble is I told my mum I was just a cook and I never left camp. When she sees this, she's going to know that's not true."

Over the past four years, the British Army has employed a similarly comforting narrative: honest mum, the local security forces are really good, they are our friends and soon they'll take over so we can leave.

Often, events told a different story: for example when that angry crowd set alight a soldier as he scrambled out of his armoured vehicle - the single best known image of the British in Basra - and not one of the city's 20,000 police came to help.

Army defeated

There was a time when British troops were being attacked every time they went outside the wire. It's one of the reasons they withdrew from the city centre to the airport outside.

Mahdi Army militia
Rival militias are vying with each other for control of Basra

A British general told me - privately and off the record of course - that the Army had been defeated, pure and simple.

But, said one officer on the phone from Basra on Friday, everyone predicted that when we left, Basra would burn. But it didn't happen. That's a major success, he said.

This officer agreed that the city was plagued by rival militias and criminal gangs, but what had changed was that, finally, the local security forces were equipped to deal with it.

Over the past four years, I've been told many times that this police chief or that Iraqi general was taking charge and would end the violence. But the new police chief, General Jalil Khalaf, does seem different. For one thing, he's already survived seven assassination attempts, a sign of how seriously the militias are taking his attempt to clean up Basra.

Conditions dreadful

The British are not handing over a Basra at peace. For ordinary Basrawis conditions are simply dreadful. Forty-two women have been murdered over the past three months for wearing make-up, or failing to wear the hejab, the Islamic headscarf.

On official figures half of the city's Christian population has fled - and that's probably an underestimate.

In October, the main police station in the city centre was over-run by Mahdi Army militiamen trying to free one of their comrades.

However, the important lesson of that, say British officials, is that the Iraqi police and army cleared up the problem themselves, regaining control of the building within the hour. British assistance was not needed.

So, on Sunday, there will be a ceremony to hand over the last British province in Iraq It will start, as is customary, with a reading from the Koran.

Then the British commanding general and the governor of Basra will sign a document saying, in essence, that Iraqi problems are now for the Iraqis alone to solve.

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