Britain Turns Some Command Over to U.S.

BAGHDAD (AP) - Britain turned over coalition command of the
oil-rich south to the United States on Tuesday in the first step
toward withdrawing virtually all British troops from Iraq by July.

The pomp-filled ceremony marked the beginning of the end of an
often-troubled British mission. The Iraqis have accused the British
of merely standing by while Shiite militias wielded control of the
country's second-largest city of Basra for years.

However, U.S. and Iraqi commanders had nothing but praise
Tuesday for Britain's role as the second-largest contributor of
troops since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

"The accomplishments of the British forces across Iraq, and
especially here in Basra, have been nothing short of brilliant,"
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said during the
ceremony at the airport base outside Basra, 340 miles (550
kilometers) southeast of Baghdad.

The British troops will be withdrawn in phases, with combat
operations to finish at the end of May and all but about 400 troops
withdrawn by the end of July. Those staying behind will focus
mainly on training the Iraqi navy to defend oil platforms stationed
off the coast, the British Ministry of Defense has said.

The Americans will move units to replace the British troops to
ensure a smooth transition, the military said. U.S. military supply
lines pass through the area en route from Kuwait to U.S. bases
throughout the country.

The Iraq war has been extremely unpopular in Britain, and the
issue shadowed the final years of Tony Blair's premiership.

At the height of combat operations in March and April 2003,
Britain had 46,000 troops in Iraq. The British military has
suffered 179 deaths since the war started.

Violence has dropped off sharply in most of Iraq, but a spate of
high-profile bombings this month has raised concern that insurgents
are regrouping ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from
Iraqi cities by the end of June and from the rest of the country by
the end of 2011.

The number of Iraqis killed in war-related violence rose 12
percent to at least 323 in March, including 87 security forces and
226 civilians, according to an Associated Press tally. That
compared with 288 Iraqis killed in February.

The AP began tracking the figure in April 2005 based on reports
by police, hospital officials, morgue workers and verifiable
witness accounts.

These numbers are considered a minimum, based on AP reporting.
The actual number is likely higher since many killings go
unreported or uncounted. The security personnel include Iraqi
military, police and police recruits, and bodyguards. Insurgent
deaths are not included.

Also Tuesday, a suicide truck bomber struck an Iraqi police
station in the northern city of Mosul, killing at least eight
people - four policemen and four civilians - and wounding 12,
officials said.

At least nine U.S. troop deaths were reported this month - less
than half from combat, according to an AP tally.

The latest death occurred Tuesday, when a Marine died in a
"noncombat incident" in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the U.S.
military said.

In all, at least 4,263 American service members have died in
Iraq since the war began in March 2003, the AP tally shows.

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