Tuesday, March 31, 2009

U.S. Takes Over as Britain Begins Basra Pullout - New York Times

BASRA, Iraq — After six years as America’s closest western ally in Iraq, Britain handed over command in the Basra area to the United States on Tuesday as a prelude to withdrawing its last 4,100 troops from the country.

At its height, the British commitment to the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 totaled more than 40,000 personnel, including ground troops and pilots. But with its army stretched by a growing deployment in Afghanistan, Britain has gradually scaled back its presence and handed over security duties to Iraqi forces.

At a ceremony at a civilian air terminal here, Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon of Britain’s Royal Marines handed control of forces in the Basra area to American Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, who will command the British forces as they draw down.

Most are scheduled to leave the country by the end of July, but several hundred will be left an advisory capacity, British military officials said.

“We stayed the course and we endured,” General Salmon said at the ceremony, during which the band of the Royal Marines played the British, American, and Iraqi national anthems.
Some 7,000 American soldiers will move in to replace the British divisions by late summer, General Oates said. Prior to Tuesday’s handover, some 2,000 American troops in Basra were under British command.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of American forces in Iraq, praised the British deployment in Iraq and said that the transition ceremony “comes with mixed emotions.”

“None of this has been easy. We have faced tremendous adversity,” he said, telling British representatives: “You have given the people of Iraq an opportunity to build a bright and prosperous future.” He said the handover represented a “transition, not an end.”

Ever since a massive operation last year spearheaded by the Iraqi army, with substantial British and American support, security has improved significantly in Basra, though residents still complain of a severe lack of jobs and basic services. Coalition forces have become an uncommon sight in Basra’s streets, which are dotted by Iraqi police and army checkpoints.

Iraqis security forces are technically in control of Basra, and the remaining American troops will primarily serve as advisors, General Oates said.

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