1 May 2009

Britain ends military operations in Iraq

8:51 pm on 1 May 2009

British forces have formally ended combat operations in Iraq one month ahead of schedule after a solemn ceremony to remember their dead comrades from six years of warfare.

The 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.

British troop numbers were the second largest in the Iraq campaign, peaking at 46,000 at the height of combat operations.

The formal end of combat operations means 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 31 March, when the pennant of the British headquarters in Basra came down and the base was handed over to US control.

British troops took a step closer to withdrawal at the start of the year when Basra International Airport - used as a British military base during the conflict - was passed to full Iraqi control.

A BBC News defence correspondent says there is a sense of relief for many British servicemen and women that their final tour of Iraq is winding down.

Some are now serving on their fourth tour, taking them away from home for two years out of the past six.

Southern Iraq is more peaceful than it was a year ago, but when British forces invaded Iraq as part of the US-led coalition in 2003 few people imagined troops would still be in the country six years later.

As British forces prepare to leave Iraq, senior commanders admit they have learned lessons from the campaign.

It was a conflict that showed the strengths and weaknesses of the British armed forces.

There were acts of great heroism but also a force that came under great strain, fighting on two fronts - in Iraq and Afghanistan.