BASRA, Iraq — The first British camp to be handed to the Iraqis was looted almost bare within days of the army's departure.
The transfer last month was widely heralded as a signal that Iraq would soon be ready to run itself.
A British soldier said that, as the last men drove away, they saw pick-up trucks being filled with equipment worth tens of thousands of pounds.
Most items that could be removed were taken, including air-conditioning units, water-filtration systems, chairs, bedding, and kitchen utensils. When the commander of British forces in southeast Iraq, Brigadier James Everard, discussed the matter with the province's governor, he was told that the camp had "largely gone."
Military sources believe off-duty Iraqi soldiers and government officials did much of the looting.
British officers privately say they blame the governor for much of the looting and believe some of the air-conditioning units are now in his private office.
The Iraqi and British governments had described the transfer of Camp Smitty on July 30, a base outside the southern city of Samawah, as a key step in handing control of security back to Iraqis.
But the looting casts doubt on official insistence that coalition troops are only withdrawing when local authorities are ready to assume their responsibilities.
Camp Smitty is the first deemed ready to run itself, and all coalition troops were withdrawn. British officials insisted this was done only after rigorous assessment of the local government and Iraqi security forces.
Defense Secretary Des Browne said it was a step toward "building a stable and democratic future for their country." The Iraqi prime minister, who attended a handover ceremony in Samawah, had called it a "great national day."
The camp, which British troops had shared with an Australian contingent, had been intended for use as an Iraqi army base.
A nearby base used by a Japanese contingent was also ransacked, with townspeople from Samawah joining in.
Locals said roadside markets appeared in the following days selling computers, electrical kits, air-conditioning units, and other equipment from both camps.
Named in honor of a British soldier killed in the first weeks of the Iraq war, Camp Smitty was established by the army in 2003 before being used as a base by the Dutch until they left in March 2005.
A sparsely-populated province bordering Saudi Arabia, Muthanna is considered one of Iraq's most peaceful.
Units are maintained in a neighboring province in case the governor needs to call on their assistance to resolve any future security problems.
British troops are now working throughout the night to remove as much equipment as possible from the second camp earmarked for imminent handover, Camp Abu Naji in the southeastern Maysan province.
Convoys of 160 vehicles each have been ferrying kit to Basra.
The military says the decision to remove equipment was made before the looting of Camp Smitty and is due to the fact that British troops will not transfer security matters to the local authorities but rather reposition themselves elsewhere in the province.