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Last Updated: Sunday December 16 2007 12:28 GMT

British troops hand Basra to Iraq

Iraqi soldiers during training

British troops have handed control of Iraq's Basra province back to Iraqi officials, four-and-a-half years after the US-led invasion of the country.

During that time UK troops have been trying to keep the peace and retrain Iraqi forces so they can be responsible for law and order in the southern city.

Major General Graham Binns, who led troops into Basra in 2003, said it had "begun to regain its strength".

The handover is a really big step in Britain's final withdrawal from Iraq.

British troops will stay in the province for a while to make sure everything is ok, but about 2,500 of them are expected to return to Britain in the spring.

British military vehicles leaving Basra City in September 2007
British military vehicles left their base in Basra City in September
Those who stay on will only get involved in conflict if they are attacked or if Iraqi commanders ask for support.

Historic day

A ceremony was held at Basra airport to mark the handover of the province - the last area of Iraq for which British troops had taken responsibility.

Maj Gen Binns said: "I came to rid Basra of its enemies and I now formally hand Basra back to its friends."

Some people are worried about how long Basra will stay peaceful, but Iraq's national security advisor, Dr Mowaffak- al-Rubaie said it was an historic day that marked a "victory for Iraq".

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