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Basra wary of U.S. forces as British depart

BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) - People in the Iraqi city of Basra fear the U.S. troops taking over from departing British forces, whose relatively light touch contrasts with the U.S. military’s fearsome, and sometimes trigger-happy, reputation.

Major General Andrew Salmon (L) shakes hands with Major General Michael Oates as he hands over his command of General Officer Commanding Multi National Division (South East) at Basra airport in southern Iraq, March 31, 2009. REUTERS/Cpl James Williams/MoD/Handout

Those interviewed in Iraq’s second city said British forces understood Iraq better, given Britain drew up and ran modern Iraq early in the 20th Century, and that British troops had treated them relatively well since they invaded in 2003.

“The British have studied Iraq and understand our culture and religion. Americans kill and do what they want. We’ve seen the British get attacked ... but they respect the citizen, and do not fire back randomly,” said student Uday Jaffer.

On Tuesday British troops marked the end of their Iraq mission at a ceremony at Basra airport, their last outpost in the city. They had joined U.S. forces as Washington’s main partner in its “coalition of the willing,” which toppled Saddam Hussein six years ago.

Some 4,000 British troops stationed in Basra will gradually withdraw over the coming months, and the U.S. military will use the city’s airport as its command centre for Iraq’s south.

Iraqi forces are responsible for security in the south, but Britain has been helping with training and other support. British soldiers are a common sight in Basra.

“We hope that the U.S. forces are like the British. There is fear unfortunately ... We’ve all seen Vietnam war films. Their military operations are frightful,” said Abdul Aali al-Moussawi, one of Basra’s respected Shi’ite clerics.

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Some 850 U.S. military police have been in Basra since August training Iraqi police, but they are little noticed.

U.S. Major General Michael Oates, who from Tuesday will command U.S. and British troops in all of Iraq’s nine southern provinces, said the people of Basra had nothing to fear.

“We don’t have a more heavy-handed approach ... There’s a misperception about American forces, and when you work with us you’ll see we’re very kind people,” he told Reuters.

U.S. soldiers thrust into Iraq’s raging insurgency and pitched sectarian battles gained a reputation for shooting first and asking questions later.

The bloodshed peaked in 2006 and 2007, but the U.S. military has since helped Iraq cut violence sharply, and continues to provide support and training.

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U.S. President Barack Obama plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops by August 31 next year, and all soldiers by the end of 2011. Shifting U.S. personnel to Basra brings them a step closer to their expected exit through nearby Kuwait.

Not all those interviewed feared a U.S. presence in Basra. Britain has been criticised for being soft on the militias that ruled they city as recently as last year, prompting Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to order a military crackdown.

Britain says it used as much force as Iraq’s leaders allowed.

“The Americans ... made mistakes, but they succeeded in working with Iraqi forces to bring stability, while the British failed,” said Majid Mahmoud, a radio presenter.

British troops leave behind a much calmer Basra, but the city is filthy and decrepit after years of war and sanctions. It is a far cry from the Basra Britain ruled in colonial times.

“The British built the ports, the railways. I’ll miss them,” said shopper Mansour Hasssan.

Editing by Michael Christie and Dominic Evans