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.
U.S. has shifted units south
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.
American troops operate alongside Iraqi soldiers who have taken over many front-line roles in the strategic Basra area, the hub of British military operations for years.
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 Nearly all of its troops are expected to be withdrawn by May 31, British military officials have said.
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, the British Ministry of Defense has said.
During a handover ceremony, the commander of Britain's 20th Armored Brigade in Basra, dubbed the "Iron Fist," said troops would continue to work with the coalition.
"It does not mark the end of the U.K.'s relationship in Iraq," said Brig. Tom Beckett.
Violence has dropped
The British pullout comes as violence in Iraq has dropped to its lowest levels since the start of the war. But a series of high-profile attacks in recent weeks that have killed hundreds have raised concerns about whether Iraq security forces are ready to take control.
The Americans have shifted about 1,000 soldiers to replace the departing British troops to ensure a smooth transition and protect U.S. military supply lines from Kuwait to American bases throughout Iraq.
President Barack Obama has said he plans to end American combat operations in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving a contingency force of up to 50,000 to train and advise the Iraqi security forces. The remainder of American troops are required under a U.S.-Iraqi security pact to leave by the end of 2011.
Obama said the recent attacks are a concern, but the U.S. must keep pressure on the Iraqis to make the necessary political progress to help improve security.
On Thursday, the Iraqis took control of security of the Khor al-Amaya oil terminal.
The Iraqi navy's takeover of the oil terminal — a platform that was built in 1959 and is fed by only one 42-inch pipeline — is a small but important step, officials say.
U.S. and British forces will continue to help protect the newer al-Basra oil terminal, which has two 48-inch-diameter pipelines that produce 80 percent of Iraq's crude exports.
Death toll climbs
Meanwhile, Iraqi police and hospital officials said the death toll from Wednesday's twin car bombing in a popular shopping area in Baghdad's biggest Shiite district climbed to 51 people. The blasts also injured 76 others, they said.
The officials spoke on condition on anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
More than 200 people have been killed in a string of bombings by suspected Sunni insurgents in the past week.
On Thursday, the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant network believed linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for an April 23 attack in central Baghdad that killed at least 31 people waiting for food aid. The statement was carried on jihadist forums on the Web, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors militant messages on the Internet.
The attack came on the same day that Iraqi authorities claimed they arrested the Islamic State of Iraq leader, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, in what authorities called a deep blow to insurgents.