By B.J. Weiner and Mohammed Aliwi
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 17, 2007 - Multinational Division Southeast relinquished control of Iraq's Basra province to the Iraqi government yesterday at Basra International Airport. Basra Gov. Mohammed Musabeh Al Waelee signed the official transfer papers along with British Maj. Gen. Graham Binns, the division's commander. Iraqi National Security Advisor Mowaffak al-Rubaie spoke at the ceremony along with Binns and Waelee.
Rubaie thanked the crowd of more than 100 dignitaries, including the British and Australian ambassadors, the British foreign minister, and members of the U.S. State Department and military for their support and assistance during the transition period.
"The Iraqi forces are ready to receive the security file (for Basra) from the British," he said. "We all celebrate today a new marriage (beginning) in the life of the Iraqis to the bridegroom of the (Persian) Gulf, Basra. This event ensures the progress of the abilities Iraqi armed forces in training, efficiency and personal integrity." He added that Basra province is the ninth province to fall under provincial Iraqi control.
"This is a big step towards taking over the responsibility of all provinces of our beloved Iraq, which may happen by the middle of next year," he said. "Taking responsibility of Basra means a great deal to Iraq's national government because of its strategic location, which highly affects the economic prosperity of our country."
Waelee added that all people of Basra welcomed the support of coalition forces. "This event synchronizes with Eid Al Adha, (the Hajii, a journey to Mecca required of all Muslims during their lives)," he said. "The Iraqi police are well positioned to assume control of Basra province. What the police and Army are to do during the future will be in accordance with what is written in our constitution.
"We are ready to apply the law to protect our people in Basra and will give a helping hand and will be grateful to any Iraqi person who wants to contribute and help rebuild our province," he added. "We will wield a very sharp sword in order to punish those who might try to circumvent the rules, negatively affecting the security of our province. As governor of Basra, I am ready to join hands with all political and religious parties to cooperate and rebuild our province."
The Iraqi forces have improved its capability to the point that they can control the security situation in Basra, Binns said, and now it has assumed that responsibility. "In April 2003, the coalition forces began to enhance security here," he said. "And now, four and a half years later, we returned the province and the city to the Iraqi security forces. We came to protect Basra from its enemies, and now we return it officially to its friends."
Col. Stephen Hill, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region South District, said that the event could impact the corps' mission there in a number of ways. "First positive indicator is that this provides an improved opportunity for international and Iraqi investment when you tie in stability," he said. "The (provincial Iraqi control) lends credibility to improved security situation. The ceremony is not the end, but clearly the beginning; it opens doors to the next level of construction and economic opportunity."
Basra province has unique chances of broader success because of the size of its main city -- Basra, the second largest in Iraq -- and the desire of its people and the significance of resources in the region, such as oil.
"Much like in other PIC provinces, this creates a potential improved connection with Iraqi security forces that will ultimately enhance our project access," he said. "Our construction rates will increase as will the overall quantity of projects completed, providing better services for the people. It allows us to reinvest in the city."
When a reporter for the London Times asked Rubaie about the ceremony taking place at the airport and not in Basra city because of the potential for violence in a clash between the city government and a militia, he said a celebration was being planned for the city and that the security situation would allow such a celebration.
"I am not saying things in Basra are perfect," he said. "I am saying that things are improving on a daily basis and will only get better. And we look forward to that day."
(B.J. Weiner is a public affairs officer with the Gulf Region South District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in Iraq.)