Basra police chief doubts security

( AP ) - The police chief of Iraq's southern Basra province acknowledged Thursday 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 Shiite province, which has seen major fighting between militants and coalition troops as well as between Shiite militias vying for control of Basra city and its security forces.

"I'm faced with a lot of hardships," Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, commander of the Basra Police Division, told The Associated Press. "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, in tough situations, he said Iraqi police have had to rely on calling in "support from Baghdad" or the U.S.-led coalition.

A senior American official in Baghdad said the U.S. 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 U.S.-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 - in mid-December. 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 two separate roadside bomb attacks targeting his convoy in Basra within a single week, was in Jordan to participate in a U.S.-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 Shiite-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.

"They also send us well-trained criminals to kidnap and kill our people and steal our wealth, including oil and livestock," Khalaf added.

Khalaf said his forces also lack "logistical backup gear, like surveillance aircraft and other technical monitoring equipment to control hundreds of kilometers of sea and land borders to hinder the trafficking of drugs, weapons and terrorists."

Basra province, which has an outlet to the Persian Gulf, borders mostly Iran but also Kuwait.

Within Iraq, the police chief claimed "obstacles" come from unspecified government circles. "They're trying to impede our task for various personal reasons," Khalaf said, alluding to alleged official ties with militias allied with Iranian-backed Shiite groups.

"There are thousands of army and police recruits and officers who don't act under my command and I don't know whom they're affiliated with or work for," he said.

Basra has lost more than $64 billion over the last few years, mainly because of corruption and illicit oil exports, Khalaf claimed.

During the three-day meeting at this Jordanian Dead Sea resort, the United States donated $100 million for infrastructure development projects across Iraq, including water sanitation, rehabilitation of schools, road and civic centers. The conference ended Thursday.

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