LONDON (Reuters) -- Britain has formally handed over responsibility for the running of Al-Basrah airport to Iraqi authorities, the Defense Ministry has said, a move that paves the way for Britain to withdraw from Iraq.
The airport, on the outskirts of Iraq's second-largest city in the south of the country, was seized during the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein's government in 2003.
It has since operated as both a military and a civilian airport, but has always been under British military control.
Now, following the January 1 transfer of authority, Iraqi civilians will be in overall charge of the installation, overseeing both civilian and military operations.
"The Iraqis have been operating their own airport in Basra with minimal involvement from Britain for several months," said Major General Andy Salmon, the commander of British troops in Iraq.
"From today, they will gain further autonomy, taking over the running of the air traffic control tower.... It is clear that Basra International Airport is now an international airport with good potential for future growth."
Transferring control of the airport was one of three goals Prime Minister Gordon Brown set before Britain could complete its operations in Iraq, where around 4,000 troops remain.
The holding of provincial elections, scheduled for later this month, was another of the goals, and the third was the economic regeneration of Basra and its surrounding provinces.
The remaining 4,000 troops, almost all of whom are stationed at the airport, are due to start withdrawing in the next three months, with the process completed by the end of July, ending a six-year presence.
In the past nine months, Al-Basrah has seen steady gains in terms of security and investment, with Shi'ite militia groups far less active in the city and regional businessmen and major international companies seeking out opportunities.
The head of the Basra Development Commission, a British-Iraqi body responsible for drumming up business, believes there could be as much as $9 billion of investment in Al-Basrah in the next three years, largely in the oil industry.
Al-Basrah, situated not far from the Shatt Al-Arab waterway that leads out into the Persian Gulf, has the potential to become a major regional hub, Iraqi and British business leaders say.
As well as the fact that it sits on vast oil reserves, it has a large pool of skilled labor, good research and education establishments, and strong transport links, including the airport, which handles 80 to 130 flights a month.
On January 1, U.S. forces in Iraq came under an Iraqi mandate and in an immediate change, handed over responsibility to Iraqi troops for the Green Zone, a fortified swathe of central Baghdad off limits to most Iraqis, who widely view it as a symbol of foreign military occupation.