'The Shia militias in Basra are better armed than Iraqi forces'

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The Independent Online

What actually happened yesterday?

Basra was officially handed over to the Iraqi government, the last of the four provinces under British control since the invasion of 2003.

How significant is that?

The handover was another step in the disengagement of the UK from Iraq. The actual occasion, however, was largely symbolic. The important move took place in September when British forces pulled out of their last base in Basra city, Saddam's old palace. Nothing has changed in the last three months. A gradual pull-back of forces is already under way. The remaining troops are now based at Basra airport, where they will stay while further reductions take place.

What role will the British force play in the future?

There are about 4,500 British troops left in Basra. This will be reduced to around 2,500 by the spring. Their role now is the training of Iraqi forces who have taken over security in southern Iraq. The UK authorities also insist, however, that the contingent which is left is adequate to go back into Basra and take further military action in an emergency, if asked to do so by the Iraqi government. This is disputed by critics, including the House of Commons defence committee, which holds that 2,500 is of insufficient strength to carry out any effective combat duties.

Who is in charge of security in Basra now?

The Iraqi army and the Iraqi police. The British military and diplomats have put an enormous amount of faith in the Iraqi army and police commanders, General Mohan al-Furayji and General Jalil Khalaf, who points out, however, that the Shia militias in Basra are actually better armed than their forces.

How safe is Basra now?

Gordon Brown told the House of Commons that violence has fallen in Basra by 90 per cent. What has actually happened is that it is violence against British troops which has fallen. That is mainly because, with the withdrawal from Basra Palace, the UK presence is little more than incidental in Basra for the Shia militias who are concentrating on getting hold of the spoils of war, especially the region's oil wealth.

What about women and minority communities?

In Basra, Sunnis and Christians have been subjected to sectarian cleansing by the Shia militias. Women said to have behaved in an "irreligious" way were targeted in recent months, and, according to General Jalil Khalaf, more than 40 women have been murdered.

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