Iraqi forces are handed power as withdrawal begins

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The Independent Online

Britain began its formal process of withdrawal from Iraq yesterday with a quiet first step on a path that US and British officials hope will ultimately lead to a grand exit strategy.

None was as quiet, however, as the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. Most of his speech at the ceremony to mark this historic event went unheard because the sound system failed due to a power cut.

As the microphone hissed, crackled then fell silent, the compere said hopefully: "The electricity was wavering because it was overcome by our great love for you."

It was not the most auspicious of starts in Muthanna, the province held up as a model of what has been achieved since the "liberation" by US and British led forces. There were no members of the public present at the "Olympic Stadium" of the sleepy and dusty provincial capital, Samawa, to witness the Prime Minister's tussles with broadcasting. All those present were invited, and the date of the handover had not been publicised to prevent an attack by insurgents.

Muthanna is not typical of other areas in the British-controlled zone. Its 20,000 square miles are mostly desert, and its population of 550,000 is roughly equivalent to a small English county such as Worcestershire. The main foreign presence consisted of Japanese and Australians, with the British contingent comprising just under 250 troops.

But what was being commemorated was significant, more so for Iraq than Britain. Three years, three months, three weeks and four days after the US-led invasion, an Iraqi government was getting back the control of security for one of its 18 provinces, at - British officials insist - Iraq's request.

There was undoubted pride among the Iraqis at the ceremonial takeover. In the audible parts of Mr Maliki's speech he said: "It is a great national day which will be registered in the history of Iraq, this step forward will bring happiness to all Iraqis".

The governor of Muthanna, Mohammed Ali Abbas al-Hassai, said: "This means they mean it when they say there will be an end to the occupation."

British and US officials hope the Muthanna withdrawal will be the precursor to an exit strategy on a much larger scale. They claim it will be followed by Maysan province, which is also under British control, Dhiqar, where the Italians are based, then the three Kurdish provinces in the north which have seen relatively little violence.

Major-General John Cooper, the commander of British forces in Iraq, said he believed there were "four or five" provinces where conditions were reaching the point where they could be handed back to the Iraqi government, but he declined either to name them or indicate a timescale.

One of the main problems in the British-controlled south had been the infiltration of the police service by Shia militias who have fought each other, preyed on civilians and confronted British forces.

British officials say this is not a problem in Muthanna. General Cooper said: "There are some corrupt and dishonest police in Basra [headquarters of coalition forces in the south and Iraq's second-biggest city], but there are also many honest ones.

"We have analysed every police station in Basra, and it is a problem we are looking at and we shall address it."

Asked how relevant Muthanna was in the overall scheme of withdrawal, he said: "We shouldn't overplay it, but we should not underplay it either."

British troops leaving certain areas does not necessarily mean them going home because the situation remains volatile elsewhere. The troops coming out of Muthanna are being redeployed in the south.

Tony Blair has given a timeframe of 18 months for significant levels of troop withdrawals. But looming ever larger is Afghanistan. With the deployment of extra troops announced this week, it will have a force of almost 6,000; in Iraq there are 7,200.

Do the combat troops expect to fight the Taliban in their next assignment. "There is no doubt about it; all you have got to do is look at what is going on in Afghanistan," one officer said. "A lot of us will end up there and, I suspect, Afghan- istan will be an easier war to swallow for the British people than Iraq."

There are overt signs of how priorities are changing. The RAF Tristar jets which used to take troops directly to Basra have now been switched to Kabul, with the Iraq route now a multi-leg journey involving chartered planes and dwindling availability of Hercules transport aircraft.

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