31/03/2009

Britain Hands Basra Over To US Troops

British troops have begun their official withdraw from Iraq today as Basra was formally handed to the US army.

In a handover ceremony, attended by the head of Britain's armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, and US General Ray Odierno, a British military pennant was symbolically raised and lowered over the southern Iraq town.

Major General Andy Salmon has now relinquished command to American Maj-Gen Michael Oates, who heads up the new Multi National Division South (MND-S).

The change marks what British forces describe as their 'Divisional Drawdown'. The 4,100 UK personnel currently stationed in and around Basra will now be withdrawn, leaving behind just 400 by the end of July.

In a speech at the handover ceremony, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of Defence Staff, paid tribute to the troops who had served in Iraq.

"This occasion is about the countless numbers of young men and women from the far flung corners of the US and and the various reaches of the British Isles, who have together striven here with such dedication, with such commitment, and such courage, over so long a period," he said.

"We remember particularly at such a time those who paid the ultimate price in this endeavour, those who suffered injury and disablement, in order that we might get to this point today."

In the past six years, since the UK's 2003 invasion of Iraq, 179 British personnel have lost their lives.

Before he took formal control, Maj-Gen Oates said the US "gladly" accepted the responsibility.

He added: "The citizens, elected government and security forces of Basra can expect our full co-operation and support. We look forward to the opportunities of service to the Iraqi people, and forging our new relationships here in Basra.”

Oates also said the US military would "pick up where the British forces have left off".

"It's a bitter-sweet day for me to have them leave, but I'm enormously proud of them, and I think the people of Great Britain should be proud of their army," he said.

"They've done an outstanding job in Basra."

(JM/BMcC)

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