BAGHDAD — While President Bush Monday tried to buttress his case for staying in Iraq, the last 500 British troops retreated from Basra and left the oil-rich, strategically important southern city in the hands of Iraqi security forces.
British troops handed over the presidential palace and joint coordination center Monday morning and retreated to an airbase outside the city where about 5,000 other British troops are stationed.
Bush visited Sunni Muslim Anbar province, where the U.S. has touted progress as local tribes have turned against the Islamic extremists of al Qaida in Iraq.
In the south, the problem isn't Sunni Islamic extremists but at least three dueling Shiite militias. British forces sustained heavy attacks by Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia for more than a year, and his followers Monday touted their withdrawal as a victory against the "occupation".
"If our presence on the streets is inflammatory, it's better (that) we're out," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad, who said she was confident that the Iraqi security forces, although they've been heavily infiltrated by Sadr's men and by members of the rival Badr Corps, could handle the second-largest city in Iraq. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity because she wasn't authorized to speak on the record.
"We wouldn't be handing over Basra until the Iraqi security forces and the government in Iraq are ready," she said.
On Monday, however, the supplemental security forces sent to the port city, valuable for its oil wealth and access to the Persian Gulf, were from Iraq's National Police, which are heavily infiltrated by Shiite militias. They'll supplement 28,000 local police and Iraqi soldiers already in the city, said Basra police spokesman Karim al Zaidi.
Over the past two weeks, the city quieted as British patrols disappeared from the streets and the city prepared for the handover today. The sounds of rockets, mortars and roadside bombs, once heavy night and day, had nearly stopped.
The Mahdi Army, which had been bombarding the British in Basra with daily mortar attacks, and has the largest on the ground Shiite militia, declared the withdrawal a victory.
"It gives us great pleasure and pride, and this came about because of the hits of the honorable resistance represented by the Mahdi Army that resisted so the occupier would leave," a leading member of the Mahdi Army said. "We are so happy that our efforts and sacrifices were crowned by success."
Local leaders heralded the withdrawal as a "dream." A high-ranking police official, however, said he fears that with the British exit, the Americans may try to enter the city, which he said would provoke a much higher level of violence. He said the British troops had "no role in providing security" and "let things continue between gunmen."
Zuhair Jassim, a Basra resident, had mixed emotions as he watched the British convoys leave.
"The exit of an occupier form the land of any citizen will make him happy," he said. "But the exit of the British in this way will be followed by accelerated exits, and this raises fears and doubts that the militias will use this vacuum . . . their presence was limiting the influence of gunmen and meddling neighboring countries."
The latter appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to nearby Iran.
Hakeem al Maiahi, a member of the provincial council from the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, said officials expect to turn the palace into a tourist attraction.
McClatchy Newspapers Special Correspondent al Basri contributed from Basra.