Image: Handover ceremony of a British military base at Basra
Haider Al-assadee  /  EPA
British and U.S. soldiers attend the handover ceremony of a British military base at Basra airport to U.S. forces on Tuesday.
updated 3/31/2009 5:56:11 AM ET 2009-03-31T09:56:11

Britain turned over coalition command of the oil-rich south to the United States on Tuesday in the first step toward withdrawing virtually all British troops by July.

The pomp-filled ceremony marked the beginning of the end of an often-troubled British mission. The Iraqis have accused the British of merely standing by while Shiite militias wielded control of the country's second-largest city of Basra for years.

However, U.S. and Iraqi commanders had nothing but praise Tuesday for Britain's role as the second-largest contributor of troops since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

"The accomplishments of the British forces across Iraq, and especially here in Basra, have been nothing short of brilliant," Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said during the ceremony at the airport base outside Basra, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad.

The British troops will be withdrawn in phases, with combat operations to finish at the end of May and all but about 400 troops withdrawn by the end of July. Those staying behind will focus mainly on training the Iraqi navy to defend oil platforms stationed off the coast, the British Ministry of Defense has said.

The Americans will move units to replace the British troops to ensure a smooth transition, the military said. U.S. military supply lines pass through the area en route from Kuwait to U.S. bases throughout the country.

Overall violence down
The Iraq war has been extremely unpopular in Britain, and the issue shadowed the final years of Tony Blair's premiership.

At the height of combat operations in March and April 2003, Britain had 46,000 troops in Iraq. The British military has suffered 179 deaths since the war started.

Violence has dropped off sharply in most of Iraq, but a spate of high-profile bombings this month has raised concern that insurgents are regrouping ahead of the planned withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by the end of June and from the rest of the country by the end of 2011.

A suicide truck bomber struck an Iraqi police station in the northern city of Mosul on Tuesday, killing at least eight people — four policemen and four civilians — and wounding 12, officials said.

At least nine U.S. troop deaths were reported this month — less than half from combat, according to an Associated Press tally.

The latest death occurred Tuesday, when a Marine died in a "noncombat incident" in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

In all, at least 4,263 American service members have died in Iraq since the war began in March 2003, the AP tally shows.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: End near for U.K. troops in Iraq

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