British forces formally handed over responsibility yesterday for the last region in Iraq under their control, marking the start of what Britain hopes will be a transition to a mission aimed at aiding the economy and providing jobs in an oil-rich region beset by militia infighting.
The commander of British forces in Basra, Major General Graham Binns, said the city had been pulled from the grip of its enemies.
"I now formally hand it back to its friends," Binns said shortly before he, Basra's governor and the Iraqi commander added their signatures to papers giving Iraq control of the far southern province.
Mowafaq al-Rubaie, Iraqi national security adviser, said Iraq was ready.
"The security improvements didn't come from nothing, but were the result of huge efforts from both the government and Iraqi people in fighting terrorism, extremism, militias and outlaws," al-Rubaie said.
But US officials worry that a power vacuum could heighten the influence of Iran and threaten land routes used by the US to bring ammunition, food and other supplies from Kuwait to troops in the north.
Binns said British forces would remain to help the Iraqis, but would be there "to support, not to direct, to listen, not to ignore."
Al-Rubaie said his country's ability to assume command of security in the southern region was a sign of the government's growing strength.
"We are planning and getting ready to our final war against terrorism north of Baghdad next year. The next year will be a year of rebuilding and prosperity," he said.
In Baghdad, there was some skepticism that Iraqi forces were ready to take control in Basra, but many agreed that the handover was a positive sign.
"I hope it will be followed by similar steps across the country. Such steps are good for Iraqis," said Awatif Qazaz, a resident of Baghdad.
But Osama Juwad said he feared the security forces had been infiltrated by militias.
Britain's participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq and the ongoing presence of troops is deeply unpopular in Britain -- as is the US$12 billion annual cost of operations there. A total of 174 British personnel have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
British officials have said they will retain the ability to help Iraqi troops quickly if widespread violence erupts, but they are also reducing the number of troops in the country from 4,500 to 2,000 by spring.
In the months following the invasion, there were 40,000 British troops in Iraq.
The main players in Basra and southern Iraq are the Shiite entities -- the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr; Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the largest Shiite political party and the Badr Brigade militia; and the Fadhila party, which also has its own fighters and a member who is Basra's governor.
Basra police chief Major General Jalil Khalaf survived two assassination attempts in a single week last month and has accused religious vigilante militias of terrorizing women and Christians in the city.
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