, BASRA, Mar 31 – British forces officially began withdrawing from Iraq on Tuesday, signalling the end of six years of military operations that began with the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
The flag of the British headquarters in Basra was lowered at a solemn ceremony that marked the start of a months-long process that will see all 4,100 British troops out of the violence-wracked country by the end of July.
"Our nations are bonded by the blood we have shed together. That is a bond that no man can break," said General Ray Odierno, the senior US army officer in Iraq, shortly before a US army flag was raised and the colours of the Royal Marines lowered.
"You have restored hope where chaos reigned," he said before an audience of about 300 invited guests at Basra airport, including top US, British and Iraqi officers and diplomats from all three countries.
The ceremony was also a recognition of the 179 British soldiers, airmen and sailors who have died in Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion.
Britain’s chief of defence staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup paid tribute "to those who made the ultimate sacrifice" in what he described as "a noble endeavour".
"This occasion is about the countless number of men and women from the far-flung corners of the United States and from Great Britain who have striven with such courage here in Iraq," he said.
"I salute you with pride."
Major General Andy Salmon, the senior British officer in Basra, handed over the southern base to an American commander, in a key step towards all foreign troops leaving the country and a full return to Iraqi sovereignty.
The colours of the coalition’s Multinational Division South-East, a specially-inscribed Royal Marines flag, were lowered and replaced with the standard of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division.
Salmon, a Royal Marine and veteran of the Falklands conflict and 1991 Gulf War, and his predecessors were praised at Tuesday’s ceremony by Iraqi army General Nasir Abadi.
"Now is the time to thank those British personnel who have served in our country and the many who have contributed so much," he said.
"We owe a debt of gratitude that we can best repay by continuing the progress that my country has made."
Britain, under then prime minister Tony Blair, was America’s key ally when president George W. Bush ordered his forces to invade Iraq in March 2003 to overthrow Saddam.
British troop numbers in the campaign were the second largest, peaking at 46,000 in March and April 2003 at the height of combat operations that resulted in the dictator’s ouster and eventual execution for crimes against humanity.
A deal signed by Baghdad and London last year 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.
Tuesday’s departure began almost 50 years after Britain’s previous exit from Iraq, in May 1959, when the last soldiers left Habbaniyah base near the western town of Fallujah, 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 the 2003 invasion, but the province and its airport returned to Iraqi control three months ago.
As well as training the Iraqi army, Britain has been key in the rebirth of the war-battered country’s 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 between the two governments.
The British pullout comes as the US military also steps up preparations to leave Iraq.
Under a US-Iraqi security agreement signed last November, American troops must withdraw from major towns and cities by June 30 and from the whole country by the end of 2011.