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IRAQ: Basra returned to locals amid tight security

The dignitaries and other guests — some dressed in traditional robes, others clad in business suits — strolled through the terminal of Basra International Airport towards signs for the “International Arrivals Lounge” and “Passport Control.”

However, few of the esteemed visitors had actually just arrived from overseas. Many were Iraqis, who had come to the airport on Sunday to attend a ceremony marking Britain’s formal transfer of security responsibility to the local provincial authorities.

Basra was the ninth of 18 Iraqi provinces to be given back to the Iraqis, and the last of four southern provinces under British control. Britain is expected to draw down its remaining 4,500 troops to about 2,500 by spring. And all have now pulled back from central Basra city. They say they will only enter Iraq’s second-largest city, when a crisis occurs that exceeds the capacity of the Iraqi security forces.

British military officials also boast that violence in oil-rich Basra has abated to such a manageable level in recent months, as to allow British troops to pull out.

Many Basra residents agree that their city feels safer today. Others, however, worry about the possible escalation of existing tensions between rival Shiite groups that are engaged in an often violence-prone power struggle. Other worrisome aggression in the country’s south has included the assassination of two southern governors during the summer, and several car bombings in the south.

Also troubling for many, is the seeming rise of religious intolerance and extremism that has particularly impacted women in Basra.

Still British and Iraqi officials insist that security is far better than it was even six months ago, and they tout the readiness of Iraqi security to take charge.

Despite this, no one wanted to chance conducting the symbolic handover ceremony anyplace in town. The highly fortified airport, where many of the remaining British forces are now based, proved to be the safer option.

— Ann M. Simmons in Basra, Iraq

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