Britain Hands Basra Over to Iraqis

BASRA, Iraq -- 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 along the embankment of the country's second-biggest city in the largest show of Iraqi military force since the days of Saddam Hussein.

"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.

With Iraq's second-largest city, its only major port and nearly all of its oil exports, Basra province 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 Hussein's troops in 2003.

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 one-tenth of the force that then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair dispatched to help topple Hussein in 2003.