BASRA, Iraq, (AP) – The Shaibah logistics base, once the main center of British military operations in Iraq, was turned over to the Iraqi national army on Tuesday for use as a training base.
The brief ceremony by British and Iraqi forces was the latest example of the coalition’s efforts to give Iraqi forces control over some parts of Iraq as British forces plan to begin withdrawing from southern Iraq where most of them are based. Two other British bases — al-Saie and Shatt al-Arab — were turned over to Iraqi forces in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, in the last month.
The bulk of British soldiers in the city will now operate from a British base at Basra’s main airport.
After Tuesday’s ceremony, during which British and Danish flags were lowered at Shaibah and an Iraqi one raised, Maj. David Gell, the British military spokesman in Basra, said: “It was a significant event marking the increasing capability of the Iraqi security forces. ”
“Closing these British bases enables us to focus on more productive operations designed to disrupt rogue militia activity, with less of our manpower tied down on base security and administrative tasks,” he said in an interview.
Last week, Iraqi troops also took charge of security in the southern province of Maysan, a region that borders Iran.
It was the fourth province to come under full Iraqi security control since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the others being the southern provinces of Dhi Qar, Muthanna and Najaf. Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie has said three Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq would follow next month, and then the southern provinces Karbala and Wassit.
Some British troops are still based in Maysan and are expected to continue training Iraqi security forces and patrolling Maysan’s borders. British forces also will remain on call, if Iraqi officials decide they are need to support Iraqi security forces during fighting.
But U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, have said the transition of responsibility in Maysan represented another step toward Iraqi self-reliance and its path toward national unity and improved security.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has announced that Britain will withdraw about 1,600 troops from Iraq in the next few months, and plans to make more cuts to Britain’s 7,100-strong contingent by late summer.
A British handover of security control in Basra is anticipated in months, but British forces have lately suffered their heaviest losses for more than two years in an intensifying battle against Shia militias in southern cities such as Basra.