SOUTHERN SHUNEH, Jordan - The police chief of Iraq's southern Basra province acknowledged yesterday that his forces lack the means to maintain security in the region after a British troop withdrawal later this month.
The rare admission from such a high-ranking Iraqi officer reflected concerns ahead of the British pullout from the overwhelmingly Shi'ite province, which has seen major fighting between militants and coalition troops as well as between Shi'ite militias vying for control of Basra city and its security forces.
"I'm faced with a lot of hardships," Major General Jalil Khalaf, commander of the Basra Police Division, said in an interview. "Frankly speaking, we have rifles, machine-guns, and a few armored vehicles, which aren't as advanced as the British weaponry and are insufficient to maintain full control of the province."
So far, he said, in tough situations Iraqi police have had to call in "support from Baghdad" or the US-led coalition.
A senior American official in Baghdad said the United States was concerned about the oil fields and military transport lines from Kuwait with the pending transfer of security to the Iraqis. Under the pullout, the US-led coalition would remain on standby to help the Iraqis if needed.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing sensitive issues, expressed confidence in the local Iraqi military's capabilities.
But he said that to secure the area effectively, "there has to be some political reconciliation that takes place between the various factions . . . and in some sense many of the factions have almost devolved into nothing but organized criminal gangs."
Britain will hand over control of Basra province - the last of four regions of southern Iraq it occupied after the 2003 invasion - within the next two weeks. British troops withdrew in September from their last base in the city to an airport garrison on the outskirts, and half the 5,000 British troops in Iraq are due to go home by the spring.
Khalaf, who last month escaped injury in two separate roadside bomb attacks targeting his convoy in Basra within a single week, was in Jordan to participate in a US-sponsored conference on ways to develop Iraq's 18 provinces.
The police chief said his forces are doing their best to keep Basra calm, adding that the challenges come primarily from a neighboring country and Shi'ite-allied militias within Iraq.
He declined to name the neighbor but claimed it was "exporting drugs and weapons to the Iraqis to kill each other" - a likely reference to Iran.