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The British military has formally handed over to the fledgling Iraqi security forces one of the largest British bases in southern Iraq, officials said Monday.

The Shatt-al-Arab Hotel had been home to roughly 600 troops of the 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment Battlegroup. Now, the 10th Iraqi Army Division will use the base, officials said.

The British contingent “will return home to the U.K. shortly,” a news release read. The troops had been using the base to mount patrols of the northern half of Basra, a key Shiite city in southern Iraq.

“During their time within the [Shatt-al-Arab], the Staffords have mounted many framework security operations and multiple strike operations against the rogue militias that blight life in Basra,” the news release read. “The battlegroup has also endured and responded to a significant number of militia attacks. It is the rogue militia who pose the long-term threat to peace and security in Basra.”

The British military has previously announced it is withdrawing its forces from Basra over the next year.

While the British say their move is not being driven by a timetable, they have called 2007 the “year for security transition in Basra province.”

One part of that transition is to move all the British forces to one large contingency operating base west of Basra.

By the end of April, British officials said, the Shaibah Logistics Base will be handed over to the Iraqis, leaving only one other British post — the Basra Palace — in the city.

“Whilst the correct conditions must first be achieved, the forecast is that Basra Palace will be handed over to the Iraqis [in the] late summer 2007,” the news release read.

British officials said the handing over of the Shatt was a major milestone in the transition.

It “marks another move for the Iraqi Army, essentially into the front line here in Basra, with British and Multinational Forces in a much more supporting role,” Lt. Col. Tim Sandiford, commander of the 1st Battalion Staffordshire Regiment Battlegroup, was quoted as saying. “We’ve trained them and we’re moving to the point where they implement security for themselves.”

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