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.
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."
Last of the 'coalition of the willing'?
Some 4,000 British forces are now in Basra, down from more than 46,000 at the start of the war. Most will be gone by the end of May. Since 2003, 179 British soldiers have been killed here.
When British troops leave, Romania will be the last remaining member of the US-led "coalition of the willing," which numbered more than 30 couintries near the beginning of the war.
"I don't think it's the end of the coalition," says British Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon, after handing over authority to his US counterpart. "[Britain] will be part of the coalition for some time doing different things, some longer-term bilateral defense deals that need to be worked out ... as well as a host of training."
Britain is likely to agree directly with the Iraqi government to keep a contingent of troops to train the nascent Iraqi Navy in the port of Um Qasr.
US forces arriving over the next several months are to focus on training and mentoring the Iraqi police and border security guards. Despite an agreement with the Iraqi government to remove all soldiers from Iraqi cities by this June, Iraqi authorities are likely to ask US forces to remain in Basra, where police have been heavily influenced by Shiite militias, officials say.
Basra's 'unique challenge'
"I think there's a unique challenge in Basra," says Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who will head up what will be called the Multinational Division South. "Things are going very well here but there's a perception by some people that the US forces are more heavy-handed than the British."
"We have a great reputation [in the rest] of southern Iraq, but they don't know us very well here in Basra and we've got a little work to do to convince them that we are good partners," he says in an interview following the hand over.
Britain has a much longer history and traditionally much deeper ties with Iraq. The country was under British Mandate from 1920 to 1932 – the British historically created many of Iraq's institutions, including the Army.
After helping topple the Iraqi regime in 2003, British forces were received with open arms in the Shiite south, one of the regions which had suffered the most under Saddam Hussein. Patrolling in berets rather than bullet-proof helmets, they prided themselves on a rapport with local residents.
As Basra became more violent, though, and Shiite extremists more powerful, some Basra residents accused British forces of essentially handing over the city to the Shiite militias, which terrorized residents for almost two years.
Although violence has gone down across the country, a mortar on the airfield in Baghdad delayed the plane carrying several military commanders and reporters on their way to the ceremony. As sirens sounded, the one- and two-star generals and everyone else on board ducked and covered their heads until the all-clear was given.