The withdrawal of combat troops stationed in the southern city of Basra is due to be completed by the end of July. A residual presence of a few hundred personnel will stay on to train Iraqi police, a British military spokesman in Basra said.
The 2003 invasion unleashed widespread sectarian killing, and the war in Iraq has proven both costly and unpopular for the United States and Britain. Violence has since dropped sharply in the past year, and foreign troops are preparing to leave.
U.S. President Barack Obama said last month that the United States will withdraw around 100,000 troops from Iraq by the end of August 2010, leaving a force of up to about 50,000.
“The gradual drawdown will start from March 31. We will cease operations around May 31 ... All the combat forces, about 4,000 troops, must be out of Iraq by the end of July,” British military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dickie Winchester said.
The U.S. military will send some 900 military police to Basra to lead police training, part of U.S. plans to open a headquarters there to command its forces in southern Iraq, Mr. Winchester said.
Iraqi forces are responsible for security in the south.
“A U.S. headquarters will be established here. The U.S. headquarters will take command of the south of Iraq,” he said, speaking by telephone from Basra.
Britain sent 46,000 troops to the Gulf for the 2003 invasion. British troops once controlled the southern oil-rich province of Basra, but withdrew to Basra airport in 2007, leaving Iraqi forces to take control of security.
Basra was once overrun by gangs and militias vying for its oil wealth, but is now relatively calm after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered a security crackdown last year.
Iraqi forces sent to restore order found themselves shooting at gunmen in police uniform, and the British military has said restoring confidence in Basra's police is key to stability.
“The Iraqi army is ready (and) capable of securing Basra ... The police will still continue to be trained,” Mr. Winchester said.