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AFP - British forces were on Tuesday to launch their official withdrawal from Iraq, a months-long process ending a role that kicked off with the US-led invasion six years ago.
Senior American, British and Iraqi officers were expected to mark the occasion in recognition of the 179 British soldiers, airmen and sailors who have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
The British-led coalition base in Basra will lower its flag and transfer to US control, in a key transitional step towards all foreign troops leaving the country and a full return to Iraqi sovereignty.
"It is the beginning of the drawdown of coalition forces of which Britain has been an integral part," a senior British officer told AFP.
"Although this is the start of a withdrawal, there is still work to be done and that will continue until the last British soldier has left the country," the official said.
Britain, under then prime minister Tony Blair, was America's key ally when president George W. Bush ordered his forces to invade Iraq and topple its president Saddam Hussein.
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.
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 begins almost 50 years after its 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.
The British contribution to the invasion and subsequent reconstruction efforts has been praised by American and Iraqi officers.
"British forces have been our strongest ally throughout this campaign," said US Army Major General Michael Oates, who will become the senior coalition officer in Basra when the British-led unit ceases to exist on Tuesday.
"They have done an outstanding job and our task is to continue that work."
And the Iraqi army's senior officer in the province used a farewell feast at Basra's Shaat al-Arab Hotel at the weekend to praise Britain for its support in the wake of Saddam's ouster.
"I would like to thank the British nation for the assistance they have provided to help rid us of dictatorship and live in freedom and democracy," said Major General Hawedi Mohammed.
Basra, Iraq's third-largest city and a strategic oil hub, had been under British command since the 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.
Relations between London and Baghdad should in theory revert to the same footing as those between other sovereign countries when British troops complete their withdrawal.
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.
President Barack Obama last month ordered an end to US combat operations in Iraq by August 31, 2010 but said 50,000 troops would remain under a new mission until the end-of-2011 deadline.