During a low-key ceremony Sunday, Britain formally handed over control of security for Basra province to Iraqi authorities, marking a significant...

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BASRA, Iraq — During a low-key ceremony Sunday, Britain formally handed over control of security for Basra province to Iraqi authorities, marking a significant step toward Iraqi sovereignty.

“This day is a big day in the history of Basra and the history of Iraq,” Iraqi national-security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie told a group of at least 100 dignitaries and other guests gathered in the arrival lounge at the Basra airport. “It is a huge test for the Basraris to be in charge … to determine their own fate and to rebuild the city.”

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

Violence in Basra has abated to a manageable level in recent months, British military officials said, allowing for the move.

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But the fact that the ceremony was held not in the city but in an airport lounge underscored the still-fragile nature of security in town.

The British have touted their withdrawal as an indication of the calmer situation on the ground and point to the transfer to Iraqi security forces as a model for establishing stability elsewhere in Iraq. They insist that the strategy has forced the provincial government to take charge and push warring Shiite Muslim militias to reconcile.

“Basra security institutions have proven that they are capable,” said British Maj. Gen. Graham Binns, adding that British forces would continue to train the province’s security forces.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, day-to-day commander in Iraq, told reporters in Baghdad on Sunday that the United States would be ready to respond to requests for help if needed, from Iraqi security forces or the British forces, but indicated this would be limited to providing air support and intelligence.

U.S. officials remained skeptical that Basra could serve as a model for the rest of the nation because Basra’s largely Shiite ethnic composition is different from that of other areas where Shiites and Sunni Arab militants repeatedly have clashed.

In recent months, rival Shiite factions have fought sporadically for power in the oil-rich south. The violence has included the assassination of two southern governors and a number of senior security officials, and car bombings that killed at least 28 people in neighboring Maysan province Wednesday.

The battle for political supremacy mainly has been among three rival Shiite groups: the fiercely anti-U.S. Mahdi Army of popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr; the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, whose Badr wing controls law enforcement across much of the south; and the smaller Fadhila party.

Vali Nasr, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, said maintaining peace in Iraq’s south would depend largely on “what Iran can and will do.”

Neighboring “Iran has ties with Mahdi Army and the Badr Corps, as well as Fadhila party in Basra,” Nasr said, adding that Iran had so far kept a truce between the warring factions and therefore helped keep Basra under control.

But “the potential for fighting is great if Iran loses control or decides to change strategy,” Nasr said.

In town, opinion was mixed about the security status.

Maj. Gen. Abdul Jalil Khalaf, commander of the Iraqi police in Basra, said he did not expect an escalation in violence because Iraqi forces have been in control of the city since Britain started its pullout in September.

“There are no militias controlling the streets of Basra anymore,” Khalaf said. “Now only the law and security forces have control over the streets.”

But some residents of Basra were anxious about the British departure, saying intra-Shiite fighting had spawned an intolerable environment of fear.

“When I walk the streets, I don’t feel secure,” said a 42-year-old Shiite civil servant, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. “I don’t stay out late, because of this. The British didn’t kill anybody. … The British didn’t kidnap anybody.”

Another troubling factor for some Iraqis is the seeming rise of religious extremism in Basra, which in the past was known for vibrant night life and religious tolerance.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism here had led to repression of secular activities. Music shops, liquor stores and barbershops were closed.

Lately, police in Basra have reported the killings of dozens of women by religious vigilantes because they were wearing makeup and not wearing a hijab, a traditional Islamic head covering. Most recently, a Christian brother and sister were shot on a Basra street by gunmen posing as police.

The Basra hand-off is the sixth and most significant so far among the nine predominantly Shiite provinces of central and southern Iraq. Counting the three Kurdish provinces, Iraqi forces are now in charge of nine of 18 provinces.

Information from The Christian Science Monitor is included in this report.

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