British forces formally handed over responsibility Sunday 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, Maj. Gen. Graham Binns, said soldiers had successfully wrested the region 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 the papers giving Iraq formal control of the far southern province.
Mowafaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's 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.
The handover of Iraq's main oil export hub is the biggest test yet of the Baghdad government's ability to maintain security without troops from the United States or its main ally.
With Iraq's second-largest city, only major port and nearly all its oil exports, 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.
"(This) marks an important milestone in Iraqis taking responsibility for their own destiny," Lt. Gen. Bill Rollo, the top British general in Iraq, told Reuters in Baghdad.
But U.S. officials worry that a power vacuum could heighten the influence of Iran and threaten land routes used by the Americans to bring ammunition, food and other supplies from Kuwait to troops to the north.
Region of contrasts
The mainly Shiite southern province has largely escaped the sectarian warfare that killed tens of thousands of people in central Iraq. But Basra has been the scene of bloody turf wars between rival Shiite factions, criminals and smugglers.
Basra's police accuse militants of imposing strict Islamic codes, killing women for so-called "honor crimes."
Yet Iraq's second-largest city is also a lively place, with restaurants open late and little of the barricaded neighborhood siege mentality that permeates the capital Baghdad.
The factions agreed to a truce this month and killings are down. But a triple car bomb attack which killed about 40 people in neighboring Maysan province last week served as a reminder of the potential for violence in areas vacated by the British.
A scaled-down British force will remain in southern Iraq confined to a single air base outside Basra, with a small training mission and a rapid reaction team on stand-by.
Britain now has 4,500 troops in Iraq, less than a tenth the force that 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 just 2,500 by mid-2008.
Oil-rich region creates conflicts
Basra province exports more than 1.5 million barrels of oil per day, providing nearly all Iraq's government funds.
Some oil is also sold abroad outside official channels, providing an illicit income for smugglers, many of whom are believed to have links to the region's squabbling militias.
Political squabbling has split the city among three main factions. Loyalists of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have wide influence on the streets, the rival Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council has clout in the security forces and the smaller Fadhila party controls the governorate.
Since the fall of Saddam, Britain maintained control of four southern provinces, backed up by large contingents of Italians, Australians, Japanese and others — most now long since gone.
British forces began handing over the provinces last year, but suffered ever-deadlier attacks as they withdrew.
Of the 134 British service members killed by enemy action in Iraq, more than 30 died in a four-month period from April-July this year after Blair announced plans to withdraw from Basra.
In May, generals had to call off plans to dispatch Prince Harry, a tank officer, to serve in Iraq because it became too unsafe to send the man third in line to the throne.
Attacks on the British largely stopped in September after a final 500 British troops withdrew from a palace in the center of Basra and relocated to the main air base outside the city.