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Responsibility for nine southern Iraqi provinces has shifted from British to American command, and the U.S.-led mission in Iraq has combined commands for southern operating areas.

The shift means combining Multi-National Division — Center and MND — Southeast into one command now called MND — South. The transfer took place during a Tuesday ceremony at Basra International Airport, officials said.

Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, now the MND — South commander, took over from British Maj. Gen. Andy Salmon.

The British are reducing their forces from about 4,100 to a few hundred by July 31, Salmon has said.

"It’s a bittersweet day for me to have them leave," Oates was quoted as saying in a news release. "I’m enormously proud of them and I think the people of Great Britain should be very proud of their army."

About 2,000 U.S. troops will head to southern Iraq as British forces there leave, bringing the total number of U.S. troops in southern Iraq to about 3,500.

The 10th Mountain Division will head the new headquarters until May, when the 34th Infantry Division out of Minnesota will take over, U.S. military officials have said.

The new headquarters will be located at Basra Airport, said Lt. Col. Dickie Winchester, a spokesman for British forces in Basra.

"Why? Because the airport is five miles out of the city, conforms to the U.S.-Iraq security agreement, and is at a strategic situation," Winchester said.

Basra was once the site of vicious fighting that — unlike the rest of Iraq — was mainly between competing Shiite militias.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered Iraqi forces to Basra without American guidance in the spring of 2008. The fighting proved harder than expected, yet Iraqi units managed to push back militias with significant American help.

More recently, British commanders launched operations to get control of the violence. Commanders have since called their operations in southern Iraq a success. Salmon said security is stable and that much of the remaining violence is due to simple crime or corruption.

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