Preparations were underway on Sunday as British troops geared up to transfer the security of the southern oil-rich province of Basra to Iraqis, a move paving the way for Britain's army to head home.
"The preparations for the handover are on," British military spokesman Major Mike Shearer told AFP without elaborating the details.
The transfer ceremony is expected to be attended by top Iraqi officials including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and senior British officials.
Basra will be the ninth out of the 18 Iraqi provinces to be handed over to the Iraqi forces by coalition troops.
It will however be the fourth and the last province to be transferred by the British military to the Iraqis.
British troops were greeted as liberators when they rolled into the province in March 2003 but never subsequently succeeded in winning over the predominately Shiite population, and few locals will mourn their departure.
"The handover of the province will give life back to a region which has suffered so much," proclaims a banner on a main road into the city of Basra, southern Iraq's economic heartland.
"It's our wish to see the Iraqis take responsibility for security in place of the British, they never understood anything except the language of the bullet," said Abu Ahmed, a 55-year-old parking attendant in the city.
A recent BBC opinion poll showed the vast majority of the local population shares that sentiment: 86 per cent of respondents said they saw the British as a negative influence in the region. Only 2 per cent thought their presence positive.
A feared explosion of violence on their departure from Basra, an almost exclusively Shiite city of 1.7 million people, has not materialised.
The province has been riven by rivalries between the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), the Shiite radical faction of Moqtada al-Sadr and the smaller Fadhila movement.
Hopes for a lasting peace in the province rest on a recent peace agreement signed by the three groups.
SIIC chief Abdel Aziz al-Hakim said such rivalry is healthy, "the very nature of democracy."
"Political competition will not transform itself into armed conflict," he told AFP in Baghdad.
"The government must be able to discipline political groups and factions," said Ali Tawfik, 46, the owner of a popular cafe in the centre of Basra. "Everybody should be equal before the law," he said.
Preparations for the long-awaited security handover gathered pace after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a surprise visit to Basra on December 9 and said the handover would take place in two weeks, on a recommendation from his Iraqi counterpart, Nuri al-Maliki.
Britain has about 5,000 troops in southern Iraq, and Brown said in October that troop numbers would be cut by more than half to 2,500 by early next year as Iraqis assume control of Basra province.
After the handover of Basra, the British troops are expected to provide specialist backup to the Iraqi security forces, such as patrolling Iraq's border with Iran.
"Of course, we are ready to take charge of security," said Abu Wissam, a police officer on patrol in the city centre's Al-Jazair street.
"We are urging the residents of Basra to respect the security forces and their missions," he said.
But uncertainty remains over their ability to keep the local factions from each other's throats, particularly given the region's vast oil wealth.
It produces more than 70 per cent of the country's oil and 80 per cent of Iraq's crude exports go through Basra's port.
"We expect the security forces to act professionally," said Ali al Siaidi, the local head of the Sadrist movement, which has regularly accused state forces of serving the interests of the CSII.
At stake in Basra is control of the Southern Oil company, which in turn controls the region's oil industry, and the billions of dollars in revenue it generates for the state. (AFP)
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