British Prime Minister Gordon Brown flew into southern Iraq to rally troops and confirm that Iraqi forces will take command of the last region under British control this month.
Soldiers lined the staircases of an airport base to watch Brown arrive for his hourlong visit on Sunday, offering thunderous applause as he praised their efforts to maintain security in the south.
"We have managed now to get Iraq to a far better position. ... We're able to move to provincial control and that is thanks to what you have achieved," Brown told soldiers.
He said he had held discussions by phone with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who recommended responsibility for security in southern Iraq should be handed over to local police and soldiers within two weeks.
"It's because of all the operations we have done over the past few months," Brown said. "Not that violence has ended, but we are able to move to provincial Iraqi control and that's thanks to everything you have achieved."
The British leader's unannounced visit signaled the start of what Britain hopes will be the transition from a military mission in Iraq to one aimed at aiding Iraq's economy and providing jobs.
Britain's participation in the US-led invasion of Iraq and the ongoing presence of troops is deeply unpopular in Britain -- as is the ?6 billion (US$12 billion) annual price tag of operations there.
A total of 173 British personnel have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
Brown has been less enthusiastic about Britain's combat role than his predecessor Tony Blair, but is not budging on remaining in the US-led coalition even as other participants dwindle away.
Australia and Poland have recently announced their combat forces will leave Iraq next year.
An economic adviser is expected to be appointed soon to oversee a development project and create new jobs for residents, officials said.
They said Basra's vast oil wealth and once vibrant economy could offer tremendous growth potential provided security issues are resolved, officials said.
There are concerns, however, that Iraqi forces are not ready to fill the security vacuum expected when they are given full responsibility for maintaining order across the south in the next two weeks.
Basra police chief Major General Jalil Khalaf acknowledged last week that his forces lack the means to provide security in the region when British troops withdraw.
He said Sunday at least 40 women have died in the city this year at the hands of religious vigilantes, describing the discovery of mutilated bodies accompanied by notes warning against "violating Islamic teachings."
Khalaf has blamed sectarian groups who he said are accosting women not wearing traditional dress and head scarves and men with Western clothes or haircuts.
In London, the House of Commons Defense Select Committee has expressed fears about a post-British Basra, concluding earlier this month that British forces will leave behind a violence-wracked city dominated by criminals and Shiite militias.
Under the security handover plan, British troops will take up a role Brown has described as "over-watch," a move that will allow Britain to largely end combat operations but retain the ability to quickly insert itself should the need arise.
Britain will train and support Iraqi forces and remain on standby to help the Iraqis if needed. US officials are concerned about security of oil fields and military transport lines after the handover.
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