BASRA — British forces handed over security responsibility for the key Iraqi port and oil-rich southern province of Basra to the Iraqi government on Sunday, leaving some residents fearful of intensified militia clashes and Shiite extremism.
Meanwhile, in northern Iraq, Turkish military planes hit Kurdish border towns in a three-hour attack aimed at the Kurdistan Workers Party, a violent separatist movement that seeks to establish a Kurdish homeland in southeastern Turkey. One woman was killed, a local mayor said, and hundreds of families fled their homes.
The Basra handover, at the airport to which 5,000 British forces withdrew last summer to escape withering attacks in the port city, marks the beginning of the end of nearly five years of British support for the occupation of Iraq. Basra was the last of four provinces that British forces controlled and their troop presence is due to fall to 2,500 or less by spring.
"I came to rid Basra of its enemies and I now formally hand Basra back to its friends," said the British Commander, Maj. Gen. Graham Binns in a ceremony held in the airport's departure lounge.
British officials say attacks have dropped in recent months in the city, although they no longer patrol there.
Now they will only enter in times of crisis.
"Our help will continue to be one of assistance, not interference; to support, not to direct; to listen, not to ignore," Binns said. "This will be achieved by actions, not just by words. This is our promise to you, the people of Basra."
National Security Adviser Mowaffak al Rubaie, the top Iraqi military man present, said after the ceremony: "We have huge challenges ahead of us. We have yet to declare victory. But we are on the right track." He urged unity among local leaders.
The Iraqi government and British officials said that 30,000 British-trained Iraqi troops are now ready to provide security to Basra.
Although leaders hailed the handover as a sign of sovereignty and progress for the Iraqi security forces, the ceremony meant little to many residents.
"During the last few months the Iraqi security forces were the ones who kept security in the city and that's what increased the confusion and disturbance of security in Basra," said Safaa Issa a master's student at the college of education in Basra. Two other residents said much the same.
In Basra it is not Sunni extremists that are the problem but at least three dueling Shiite groups struggling for power. The Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr, currently dominates.
Residents say religious and personal freedoms are deteriorating as Shiite militias impose merciless religious ideologies. In the last six months scores of women have been killed for not veiling their hair, wearing makeup or for acting inappropriately, according to an Iraqi police official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the numbers.
Major General Abdul Jalil Khalaf, Iraqi police chief of Basra, has accused militants of enforcing a strict Islamic code and conducting morality-enforcing "honor killings."
At the central Basra police station graffiti on the walls warns women not to wear makeup or clothing that could be enticing. In the streets, even Christian women veil their heads and wash away makeup.
In Safaa Issa's view, the killings and the threats since the British withdrawl from the city are the clearest sign that Iraqi Security Forces are inadequate.
This kind of extremism will grow if the Iraqi security forces can't keep the city out of the hands of Shiite militias. Indeed, the Mahdi Army hailed the British withdrawal from the second largest city in Iraq in September as a victory. Attacks dropped against the British under an agreement with security forces that they would not enter the city.
Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the number two commander in Iraq, told a group of reporters in Baghdad that he considered the British handover "the right thing to do."
"It is a Shiite predominant portion of Iraq," he said. "We think it's a problem better solved by Iraqis because it's mostly a communal struggle for power in the south. It is Shiite elements trying to decide who is going to be in charge in Basra. We want the Iraqi Security Forces and the Government of Iraq to handle this."
The shelling in the northern Kurdish region Sunday pummeled at least five mountain villages. It lasted from 2 to 5 a.m. according to Gen. Jabar Yawer, spokesman for Kurdish Peshmerga independence fighters.
Residents and Kurdish officials said at least one woman was killed and five other residents were wounded, at least 180 families fled their villages to escape the bombardment.
Among them was Abdullah Ahmed, 74, who lives about 80 miles east of Suleimaniyah. He was roused from bed by the sound of the shelling. Outside the air was filled with dust and the planes buzzed above. He took his family and fled to a relative's house.
"Displacement and shelling was a part of our lives by the former regime," he said. "But now, it is part of our lives again because of the Iranian bombing and the Turkish bombing."
The mayor of a small border town called Qalat Diza said a 40 year-old woman was killed and a newly built school was destroyed.
"Tomorrow the number of displaced will increase because the farmers are afraid of being targeted," said Hussein Ahmed.
Fadel reported from Baghdad, al Basri reported from Basra. Special Correspondent Yaseen Taha reported from Suleimaniyah.