Basra handover largely symbolic

The British long ago ceded real control of Iraq's oil-rich region.

Associated Press
Published December 16, 2007

BAGHDAD - Britain's weekend handover of Basra province will have a limited effect on security in Iraq's biggest oil region because rival Shiite warlords and local officials have been wielding the real power in the area.

The British have never sought to maintain the same level of control as the Americans did over the provinces the United States oversaw after the 2003 invasion. Since elections in 2005, southern Iraq has been under the domain of religious Shiite parties and their militia allies.

All of which means the British are handing over something local power players already possess.

"I don't think there is a handover. You've never had real British control of Basra or the area," said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "What you are really watching is a sort of nominal transfer of authority to the central government and Iraqi forces."

Stability in Basra and southern Iraq is key not only to security, but also to whether the all-important oil industry will grow and attract vital international investment. The region contains most of Iraq's proven oil reserves. If bloody fighting between Shiite factions returns, it will be hard to persuade companies to invest.

Security problems could also open the door to even greater influence by neighboring Iran.