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UK troops hand over Basra to Iraqis

Britain hands over security in Basra province to Iraqi forces, effectively marking the end of nearly five years of British control of southern Iraq.

world Updated: Dec 16, 2007 22:56 IST

Britain handed over security in Basra province to Iraqi forces on Sunday, effectively marking the end of nearly five years of British control of southern Iraq.

Thousands of Iraqi police and troops paraded the country's second-biggest city in the largest show of Iraqi military force since the days of Saddam Hussein. They drove past in heavy tanks, armoured vehicles, pick-up trucks with mounted machine guns and police patrol cars with flashing lights. Iraqi helicopters buzzed overhead and gunboats sailed up the Shatt al-Arab waterway which leads from the Gulf.

"Today we stand at a historic juncture and a special day, one of the greatest days in the modern history of Basra," provincial governor Mohammed Mosbah al-Waeli said at a ceremony held in the departure lounge at Basra airport, where a scaled-down British force now has its last remaining base.

Control of Basra will be the biggest test yet of Iraq's ability to keep the peace without troops from the United States or its main ally. Basra is far more populous, wealthier and more strategically located than any of the other eight of Iraq's 18 provinces previously placed under formal Iraqi control.

The British commander, Major-General Graham Binns, said Iraqi security forces had "proved that they are capable".

"I came to rid Basra of its enemies but I now formally hand Basra back to its friends," said Binns, who also led the force that captured the city from Saddam Hussein's troops in 2003.

Basra has seen plenty of violence in the form of turf wars between rival Shi'ite factions, criminals and smugglers. Police accuse militants of imposing strict Islamic codes and killing women for so-called "honour crimes".

A triple car bomb attack which killed about 40 people in neighbouring Maysan province last week was a reminder of the potential for violence in areas vacated by the British.

The Iraqi government says Basra's main factions agreed to a truce this month, killings in the city are down and 30,000 troops and police in the area can keep the peace.

Britain now has 4,500 troops in Iraq, less than a 10th of the force that the then prime minister Tony Blair dispatched to help topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, has said the force will shrink to 2,500 by mid-2008, including a small training mission and a rapid response team on standby.

The British were welcomed into Basra in 2003, but residents soured to them. A BBC poll showed the overwhelming majority of people were glad to see the British go.

"You can see this happiness on the faces of everyone. It feels like a heavy burden has been lifted off our chests," said teacher Adel Jassem.