British hand off to US in oil-rich southern Iraq

The ceremony marked the beginning of the end of an often-troubled British mission.

BAGHDAD (AP) âÄî Britain turned over coalition command of the oil-rich south to the United States on Tuesday in the first step toward withdrawing virtually all British troops from Iraq by July. The pomp-filled ceremony marked the beginning of the end of an often-troubled British mission. The Iraqis have accused the British of merely standing by while Shiite militias wielded control of the country’s second-largest city of Basra for years. However, U.S. and Iraqi commanders had nothing but praise Tuesday for Britain’s role as the second-largest contributor of troops since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. “The accomplishments of the British forces across Iraq, and especially here in Basra, have been nothing short of brilliant,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said during the ceremony at the airport base outside Basra, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad. The British troops will be withdrawn in phases, with combat operations to finish at the end of May and all but about 400 troops withdrawn by the end of July. Those staying behind will focus mainly on training the Iraqi navy to defend oil platforms stationed off the coast, the British Ministry of Defense has said. The Americans will move units to replace the British troops to ensure a smooth transition, the military said. U.S. military supply lines pass through the area en route from Kuwait to U.S. bases throughout the country. The Iraq war has been extremely unpopular in Britain, and the issue shadowed the final years of Tony Blair’s premiership. At the height of combat operations in March and April 2003, Britain had 46,000 troops in Iraq. The British military has suffered 179 deaths since the war started. Violence has dropped off sharply in most of Iraq, but a spate of high-profile bombings this month has raised concern that insurgents are regrouping ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by the end of June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011. The number of Iraqis killed in war-related violence rose 12 percent to at least 323 in March, including 87 security forces and 226 civilians, according to an Associated Press tally. That compared with 288 Iraqis killed in February. The AP began tracking the figure in April 2005 based on reports by police, hospital officials, morgue workers and verifiable witness accounts. These numbers are considered a minimum, based on AP reporting. The actual number is likely higher since many killings go unreported or uncounted. The security personnel include Iraqi military, police and police recruits, and bodyguards. Insurgent deaths are not included. Also Tuesday, a suicide truck bomber struck an Iraqi police station in the northern city of Mosul, killing at least eight people âÄî four policemen and four civilians âÄî and wounding 12, officials said. At least nine U.S. troop deaths were reported this month âÄî less than half from combat, according to an AP tally. The latest death occurred Tuesday, when a Marine died in a “noncombat incident” in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. In all, at least 4,263 American service members have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, the AP tally shows.