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US hands over Sadr City base to Iraq

The US army handed over a base in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City, once a bastion for anti-US insurgents, to Iraqi forces on Saturday as the deadline nears for its pullout from Iraq's cities.

world Updated: Jun 21, 2009 01:18 IST

The US army handed over a base in the Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City, once a bastion for anti-US insurgents, to Iraqi forces on Saturday as the deadline nears for its pullout from Iraq's cities.

The transfer of the Joint Security Station (JSS) comes barely more than a week before a June 30 deadline for US forces to pull out of Iraq's urban centres as required by a security accord signed between Baghdad and Washington in November.

"Today this base returns to its true owner," said US Major General Daniel Bolger, the commanding general of the 1st Cavalry Division.

"This land has been bought with a very high price - 136 US soldiers and 184 Iraqi soldiers shed their blood to protect Sadr City (between January 2006 and present)."

He added: "We Americans did not give you this place - you have earned it, paid with Iraqi blood, sweat and tears."

A JSS is a small urban military base in which US and Iraqi soldiers work together, which operates under an Iraqi flag, and from which US and Iraqi troops carry out joint patrols.

In the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, American forces were welcomed in Sadr City, a sprawling, predominantly Shiite neighbourhood in northeastern Baghdad that is home to around 1.3 million people.

But soon after, it became a base for radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia was repeatedly accused of sectarian violence against Sunnis and attacks against US forces before it was routed by US-backed Iraqi forces in March, April and May 2008.

"The activities of the enemy were much higher in the past years and as the enemy activity has dropped and the Iraqi Army has gone stronger, and the Iraqi people have grown more secure, it's a good time for the United States to step back and to take more of a supporting role," Bolger said.

Saturday's handover marked the third base in Sadr City previously held by the Americans that had been transferred to Iraqi control this month, with a fourth and final handover to occur on June 29.

"US troops will continue to provide support our Iraqi security partners, as requested, under the articles of the Security Agreement," Master Sergeant Nicholas Conner told AFP earlier.

Meanwhile, some Iraqis acknowledged that more work needed to be done in the area.

"The situation is not perfect, outlaws are trying to commit crimes," said local cleric, Sheikh Qasim al-Qureshi.

"But I hope that the area will remain secure after the departure of American troops."