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In Iraq, British forces hand over control of Basra to the US

American forces will seek to disprove the perception that they are more heavy-handed than the British.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 31, 2009

General Ray Odierno, the US military commander in Iraq, spoke during a ceremony where British forces handed over military control of the Basra region in Iraq to the US.

Jane Arraf

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Basra, Iraq

British forces handed control to the US military in the port city of Basra Tuesday in a ceremony marking the end of British authority in Iraq and the biggest step in the dismantling of the US-led coalition here.

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With a flurry of speeches in British and American accents, the US Army's 10th Mountain Division flag was raised and a British Royal Navy flag lowered over the base at Basra airport that has served as their base during some of the city's worst violence.

"The accomplishments of British forces were nothing short of brilliant," Gen. Ray Odierno, the US military commander in Iraq, told the guests seated outside the airport terminal. He highlighted the British role in reconstructing the city's infrastructure.

With vastly improved security in Basra since the Iraqi Army moved in to dislodge Shiite militias a year ago, the US general taking over the sector says one of his main preoccupations will be convincing Iraqis that US forces will not be more heavy-handed than their British counterparts.

The military operation launched by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite led-government last March is seen as a major turning point in Iraqi security and reconciliation.

"It's amazing," said Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the top US general in charge of operations in Iraq, in an interview after the ceremony. "Here we are one year later. You take a look at the economy, you take a look at the level of security – how fast things are moving – we gained about five or six years in one year's time."

A calmer city

The atmosphere in Iraq's second biggest city is dramatically different from when Shiite extremists controlled both the city and the port. Businesses have reopened, and life has returned to the streets.

Mr. Malaki's military operation, launched a year ago without consulting the US, would have failed to drive back the militias if General Austin had not stepped in and persuaded him that he needed US air support and other help, military officials say.

The US became more engaged in Basra last year at a time when the war here had become deeply unpopular in Britain. Participation by what had been the US's staunchest ally, had become so politically controversial that, with mounting British casualties, British forces were largely confined to their bases, US military officials say privately.

US officials, though, are careful not to imply that the British troops, generally admired by the US military, did anything other than successfully finish the job they set out to do.

"That's why we're not calling it a 'relief-in-place,' " the normal term for a hand over of authority during an ongoing mission, says one US military official privately. "A transfer of authority reinforces [the fact that] they have successfully completed the mission."