Page last updated at 22:53 GMT, Sunday, 16 December 2007

Flowers and prayers mark Iraq milestone

By Anna Lee
BBC News, Basra

Major General Graham Binns, left, shakes hands with Iraqi National Security Advisor Dr Mowaffak Baqer al-Rubaie
The beginning of the end for the UK in Iraq?
After more than four years, British forces have transferred control of Basra province to the Iraqi authorities in a simple, yet significant ceremony.

My eye was drawn to the flowers. Pink and white, they cascaded across the conference table and down onto the floor.

An unusual sight at a press conference, especially one like this.

In the cool, marble-floored terminal of Basra International Airport, the Iraqis were preparing for a milestone.

Four-and-a-half years after taking control of four provinces in the south of Iraq, British forces were handing that power back.

There were prayers, the Iraqi national anthem, a reading from the Koran.

But the moment of change was unremarkable, signatures on a piece of paper, a simple gesture for such a significant event.

Violence and danger

This is being called the beginning of the end for the UK in Iraq.

Where British soldiers once patrolled the streets of Basra city, the Iraqis will take over.

Major General Graham Binns, right, prepares to sign a Memorandum of Understanding
The new Iraqi army is still young

But this isn't the end of the story.

There's no doubt that Basra is still a violent and dangerous place to be.

It is no coincidence that the handover ceremony happened in the relative safety of Basra airport, rather than out on the streets among ordinary Basrawis.

The job of containing that threat now rests with 30,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers.

Berets to body armour

It is a tough task, the new Iraqi army is still young, and the Iraqi police force has faced accusations of corruption.

We still don't know how they are going to react when they are in full control

Their biggest challenge will be containing the violent militia groups jostling for power and influence in Basra.

It is an oil-rich area with huge economic potential, and there is no doubt that some will resort to murder to claim their prize.

Despite that, it is clear that the people of Basra want the chance to solve their own problems.

In the summer of 2003, British soldiers could walk the city streets in berets and shirts.

In the months before the final pullout from Basra Palace, things had changed.

Patrols were made in heavily armoured warrior vehicles, body armour and helmets were worn at all times.

Training role

Since UK troops left the city and pulled back to Basra Airport, the violence has fallen by an estimated 90%.

But during their time occupying Basra, British forces were the target of 90% of the attacks carried out there.

The 4,500 troops still based in Iraq will now move into an overwatch role, training the fledgling Iraqi forces, policing the Iran/Iraq border and securing supply routes.

In these first crucial few months there will still be infantry soldiers available to step in to give support.

It's about the Iraqis now being capable of doing it for themselves
Major Mike Shearer

The difference now is that that decision will be made by the Iraqis.

UK forces will provide assistance only if it is asked for, rather than if they think it is needed.

The British military admits it has not handed over a perfect Basra.

Major Mike Shearer, the spokesman for British forces in Iraq, describes it as manageable.

"We've never professed to be handing over a white picket-fenced Basra that resembles something out of the Stepford Wives.

"It's about the Iraqis now being capable of doing it for themselves".

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