On a main road into the city of Basra, a banner proclaims: "The handover of the province will give life back to a region which has suffered so much."

British troops have been in Basra province since April 2003, when 40,000 soldiers were deployed as part of the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Unpopular mission

Abu Ahmed, a 55-year-old parking attendant in the city, said: "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."

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A recent BBC opinion poll shows the vast majority of the local population share that sentiment: 86 per cent of respondents said they saw the British as a negative influence in the region. Only two per cent thought their presence positive.

The predominantly Shia province has been riven by factional rivalries, between the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), Muqtada al-Sadr's al-Mahdi army, and the smaller Fadhila movement.

Hopes for a lasting peace in the province rest on a recent peace agreement signed by the three groups.

"The government must be able to discipline political groups and factions," said Ali Tawfik, 46, the owner of a cafe in the centre of Basra. "Everybody should be equal before the law," he said.

Preparations for the security handover gathered pace after Gordon Brown, Britain's prime minister, made a surprise visit to Basra on December 9 and said the handover would take place in two weeks, on a recommendation from Nuri al-Maliki, his Iraqi counterpart.

Britain has about 5,500 troops in southern Iraq, and Brown said in October that troop numbers would be cut to 2,500 by early next year as Iraqis assume control of Basra province.

British backup

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.

John Cookson, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Iraq, said: "Now the focus will be on trying to attract billions of dollars of investment into Basra province. But that will only come if security is maintained."

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.