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UK forces strengthen grip on Basra

Locals gather around property looted from Basra's Sheraton Hotel.
Locals gather around property looted from Basra's Sheraton Hotel.

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Reporter Clive Myrie reports on the rampant looting and the injured civilian situation British Marines are contending with in Basra
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British forces now say they are in control of Iraq's second-largest city, but not without a struggle.
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British officials say they are having trouble controlling looters in the streets of Basra.
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DOHA, Qatar (CNN) -- The British military controls all but 20 percent of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and handover talks have already begun between UK military officials and local leaders, a UK military spokesman at Central Command told CNN.

There is no sign of any formal army left in or around the city, with only small pockets of Iraqi resistance remaining, the spokesman said on Wednesday.

British forces continue to receive intelligence from local sources about where the violence is coming from and who is still resisting, and this information is helping coalition forces slowly gain full control of the area, the spokesman said.

There are still reports of looting in the city, but the spokesman said that is expected from a citizenry that has lived such a "repressed" life for so long. Stopping the looting, he said, is not the forces' primary goal. (Looting)

The main goal is overall security for the city, the spokesman said. Once the pockets of resistance are wiped out, the looting will end and normalcy will return, he said.

Under British leadership, coalition forces have succeeded in reducing the final remaining Baath party regime presence in Basra, U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said Tuesday.

The looting in Basra and other Iraqi cities that have been "liberated" can happen when there is a temporary "vacuum in terms of control," Brooks said.

As time goes on, however, more law and order will be established, ideally by the Iraqis themselves, he said.

The British military spokesman said British forces would occupy Basra only as long as it takes to pass control over to tribal and local authorities.

Handover talks have already begun between British military officials and local leaders, and the leaders who will take control have already been identified.

The length of time the occupying force will stay in the southern city just depends on how long it takes for the coalition forces to bring full security to the area, the spokesman said.

Local help

But even after they hand over control to the local leaders, he said, the British military expects to stay, providing security for humanitarian services.

The efforts to form an indigenous civil administration in the Basra region are being done with the help of an Iraqi tribal leader, UK military spokesman Col. Chris Vernon said.

British officials were approached by a sheikh who will form leadership committee for the region, Vernon said. He would not name the man but said he is credible and known in the province.

British Mk7 Lynx helicopters fly on a combat patrol over Basra.
British Mk7 Lynx helicopters fly on a combat patrol over Basra.

"We will take him at his word on his judgment," Vernon said, who stressed that Britain plans to return civil control to the citizenry "as soon as possible."

Vernon says the British checked out the man's credentials, met with him at the divisional commander level for two hours, and finally asked him to form a committee of local leaders. This will become the core of a new local government.

Also, Vernon said water remains the most pressing humanitarian problem in the city, and engineers are working to repair Basra's water system.

The British estimate there are sufficient food stocks to last until the end of May.

Some food is being supplied by the British forces, but they are trying to target it at areas of specific need while also seeking to work with humanitarian and aid organizations.

"This is not a former Yugoslavia, this is not an Afghanistan," Vernon said.

-- CNN Producers Justin Dial and Gordon Robison contributed to this report.

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