Major-General Andy Salmon, the last British two-star general to command the province where British forces have been based for six years, is due to fly to Qatar and then home to a champagne reception in Britain.
“It is a momentous day in so many respects,” General Salmon told The Times after a ceremony at Basra airport, next to the military base, at which the flag of the US 10th Mountain Division was raised to replace the Marines’ colours.
“I think we have made a contribution, we have made a difference, we can see amazing progress has taken place in Basra. There is still an awful lot to do of course. At least we can go having contributed and done our bit.”
Asked what he planned to do when he arrived home, the General said: “Have a couple of beers, I think, and see my missus.”
A staff of about 40 will depart with him, paving the way for the majority of Britain’s remaining 4,100-strong contingent to exit Iraq by the summer.
General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, attended the ceremony along with his deputy and a number of senior Iraqi and British officials, including Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, who flew in for the occasion.
Standing on a podium decked in the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes, General Odierno paid tribute to the “special relationship” enjoyed between his country and Britain.
“Those of us who have served here are linked not just by the heritage and bloodlines that we share but by the blood we have shed together in the defence of the innocent. That is a bond that no man can break," he told an audience of about 300 mainly British and American military personnel and diplomats.
The ceremony also recognised the contribution of the 179 British soldiers, airmen and sailors who have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion and the 100,000 coalition Servicemen who have carried out tours of duty in the country.
“This occasion is about the countless number of men and women from the far-flung corners of the United States and from Great Britain who have striven which such courage here in Iraq,” Sir Jock said.
Southern Iraq is more stable than a year ago when Basra, in particular, was overrun by extremist militias. An Iraq-led operation to regain control last March has enabled a new sense of security to take hold and reconstruction projects to get underway.
Under an agreement between Baghdad and London, British combat operations in Iraq are due to end on May 31, by which time many troops will have departed. Most of the rest will leave by the end of July.
However, up to 500 are to remain in the country beyond that deadline to continue with the training of the tiny Iraqi navy and to work at an Iraqi staff college. In addition, a number of officers will continue to be based at the coalition headquarters in Baghdad.
Iraqi and British officials are discussing a new long-term agreement that will guide the two countries’ relationship beyond July 31.