SAMAWA, Iraq,(Reuters) – Iraq formally took over security of a southern province from British-led troops on Thursday, the first area outside the peaceful Kurdish region to be handed over to Iraqi control since the U.S. invasion in 2003.
“If this experience fails, this could lead to a big setback which could affect our efforts to control security,” Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told a military ceremony in Samawa, capital of Muthanna province.
“Terrorists who want to disrupt the handover of security and the success of the national unity government will not spare any effort to sabotage this step,” Maliki said.
Though relatively calm compared to violence-plagued neighbouring Basra and other regions in central and western Iraq where a Sunni Arab insurgency is raging, the handover of largely desert Muthanna marks a symbolic step in Maliki’s efforts to win more autonomy from foreign troops.
It will also test Iraq’s fledgling military and police. Shi’ite militias loyal to anti-occupation cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are strong in Samawa and residents have complained of collusion between police and the militias.
British Colonel Giles Vosper-Brown, commander of Task Force Muthanna, said his forces would be ready to respond to any security crisis.
Handing over security to Iraqis is a key part of U.S. and British plans to withdraw their 135,000 troops in Iraq.
Britain, which has 7,000 troops in southern Iraq, has said the handover of security to Iraqi forces does not mean the withdrawal of its troops from the region. They will stay on as a rapid reaction force to back up Iraq’s forces.
Australia also has troops deployed in Samawa, while Japan is in the process of withdrawing its forces.