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Britain Hands Over Security for Basra to Iraqi Forces

Britain has transferred security responsibilities for Iraq's Basra Province to Iraqi forces. This marks a major step in the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. Meanwhile, Al-Qaida's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, says the United States is failing in its efforts to subdue militants in Iraq. VOA's Deborah Block reports from Baghdad.

Basra Governor Mohammed Mosbah al-Waeli and the commander of British forces in Basra, Major General Graham Binns, signed documents at a transfer ceremony to formally give Iraq control of the province. The oil-rich region has been plagued by militia infighting.

"Four and half years later, I have the privilege of handing the city and the province back to Iraqi control," General Binns said. "I came to rid Basra of its enemies and I now formally hand back Basra to its friends."

Iraq's national security adviser, Mowafaq al-Rubaie said his government is ready and called for Basra's citizens to work together.

Basra is the last of four provinces to be transferred to Iraqi control by the British military. It is also the ninth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed back to Iraqi forces by coalition troops - four-and-a-half years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

General Binns said British soldiers would continue to help train Basra security forces, but that the Iraqis are responsible for safety in the province.

"From the outset our plan has been to build Basra's security forces, as you step up we step back," he said. "After four years and following the training of approximately 30,000 Iraqi army, navy, police and border forces - today officially marks the recognition that these brave Iraqis will control the security of the province."

Officials say British troops in Basra will be able to quickly help Iraqi forces if widespread violence erupts. Britain is reducing its 4,500 soldiers by half in the next few months.

The U.S. Deputy Commander in Iraq, Lt. General Ray Odierno said the handover was the right thing to do for southern Iraq. But he also expressed concern that a power vacuum could heighten the influence of Iran and threaten land routes used to bring ammunition, food and other supplies from Kuwait to U.S. troops to the north.