BAGHDAD – The Iraq war formally ended for British forces on Thursday as America’s main battlefield ally handed control of the oil-rich Basra area to U.S. commanders and prepared to ship out most of its remaining 4,000 troops.
A U.S. flag was raised over the British base outside the southern city of Basra in a ceremony held after a memorial for the 179 British military personnel who died in more than six years of warfare.
“Today marks the closing chapter of the combat mission in Iraq,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in London after meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
At the height of combat operations in the months after the U.S.-led invasion, Britain had 46,000 troops in Iraq. Washington still has about 130,000 troops in Iraq and has shifted units south ahead of the British pullout.
U.S. troops operate alongside Iraqi soldiers who have taken over many front-line roles in the strategic Basra area, the hub of British military operations.
British commanders have been gradually handing over responsibility of the Basra region to the U.S. military since March and have been withdrawing troops from the country in phases. Nearly all of its troops are expected to be withdrawn by May 31.
About 400 British troops will remain under an agreement with the Iraqi government mainly to train the Iraqi navy to defend oil platforms in the Gulf.