BASRA, Iraq: British forces formally ended combat operations in Iraq on Thursday, one month ahead of schedule, after a solemn ceremony to remember their dead comrades from six years of warfare.
The conclusion of the military campaign, which began with the March 2003 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, came as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown met his Iraqi counterpart Nuri al-Maliki in London.
“Today marks the closing chapter of the combat mission in Iraq,” Brown said. “The flag of 20 Armoured Brigade will be lowered as British combat patrols in Basra come to an end and our armed forces prepare to draw down.
“Today we are taking steps to strengthen and deepen our relationship and to make it a long-term partnership of equals,” he added.
A ceremony was held in the southern city of Basra for the handover to US forces by the British military, Washington’s closest ally in the war.
“Today marks the end of the UK’s combat mission in support of the government of Iraq,” said Brigadier Tom Beckett, commander of 20th Armoured Brigade, moments before the unit’s flag was lowered.
“We are sad to leave our Iraqi friends, but we leave knowing we have done our job, and done it well.”
British troop numbers were the second largest in the Iraq campaign, peaking at 46,000 at the height of combat operations that resulted in Saddam’s ouster and his eventual execution for crimes against humanity.
The formal end of combat operations means that all troops still in Iraq will use the remainder of their deployment to pack up their gear before heading to their next posting.
The official withdrawal of forces was launched on March 31 when the pennant of the British headquarters in Basra came down and the base was handed over to US control.
A deal signed by Baghdad and London last year had agreed that the last 4,100 British soldiers would complete their mission — primarily training the Iraqi army — by June, before a complete withdrawal from the country in late July.
Before the handover, British forces paid tribute to their 179 colleagues killed since the US-led invasion.
The names of the soldiers, sailors and airmen as well as those of 55 multinational forces personnel who died in British-led operations in the Basra area were read out at the memorial service, which was attended by British Defence Secretary John Hutton.
“The very act of calling by name is an important one,” said the military chaplain leading the service.
“Each name is unique and each name tells a story — the story of a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife, a father or a mother. Each name will invoke powerful memories, not least for family and loved ones back home.”
Britain, under then-prime minister Tony Blair, was America’s key ally when former president George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq to overthrow Saddam.
The pullout of troops comes almost 50 years after Britain’s previous exit from Iraq, in May 1959, when the last soldiers left the Habbaniyah base, west of Baghdad, ending a presence that dated back to 1918.
Basra, Iraq’s third-largest city and a strategic oil hub, had been under British command since 2003, but the province and its airport returned to Iraqi control four months ago.
As well as training its soldiers, Britain has been instrumental in the rebirth of the Iraqi navy.
A Royal Navy training team is based at the southern port of Umm Qasr, and its role is expected to continue although a new agreement has yet to be reached.
The drawdown of foreign troops comes amid an upturn in violence in April.
A series of bombings, suicide attacks and shootings have claimed more than 300 lives so far this month.
Under a landmark security pact signed between Baghdad and Washington in November, US troops are required to withdraw from all Iraqi towns and cities by June 30 and pull out from the rest of the country by the end of 2011.