Umm Qasr, May 15 (Reuters): British troops today formally handed over control of the first Iraqi town to a civilian authority since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s government.
Lt-Col Peter Jones, commander of 23 Pioneer Regiment and former military governor of Umm Qasr was at the formal ceremony to hand over rule to a council of 12 Iraqis, who will govern the town next to Iraq’s only deep water port.
“The people of Umm Qasr are now in charge of their own destiny, for the first time in 35 years or longer,” Jones said.
The current members of the council which will run this dusty town of 45,000 people close to the Kuwait border in southern Iraq are volunteers, including local professionals and clerics. But elections will be held in a week to appoint a new council.
Around 200 British troops are in Umm Qasr but most will leave within days, Jones said. About 30 will remain in the town to help maintain security and liase with the Iraqi council.
Town councils have been set up in several places in Iraq, but Umm Qasr is the first town where a council has taken over overall charge from US or British troops. It is also significant because the port is southern and central Iraq’s main entrance for food, aid and trade and an exit point for oil.
Many Iraqis in Umm Qasr are still full of complaints, saying drinking water is scarce and security is inadequate. “Nothing is available,” said 35-year-old Hussein Moharab, a farmer. “The market is full of unemployed people. We need security, water and food.”