(CNN) — British troops will begin leaving Iraq in May, more than six years after joining the U.S.-led invasion that ousted former dictator Saddam Hussein, Britain and Iraq announced Wednesday.
The British mission will wrap up by the end of May, with the last troops withdrawing over the next two months, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Iraqi counterpart, Nuri al-Maliki, said in a joint statement during Brown’s visit Wednesday to Baghdad.
The pair said the partnership between the two countries would continue. Brown — on his fourth trip to Iraq as prime minister — said British troops had made a huge contribution and given people an economic stake in the future of Iraq.
Brown’s previously unannounced visit comes three days after a similar trip by President Bush, who was forced to duck when an Iraqi journalist threw a pair of shoes at him during an appearance Sunday with al-Maliki.
Britain was the leading U.S. ally during the invasion of Iraq, and still has about 4,000 troops based outside the southern city of Basra. About 140,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq.
Besides the U.S. and Britain, five nations — Albania, Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania — maintain fewer than 2,000 troops total in Iraq, according to the Multi-National Force-Iraq Web site.
In their statement, Brown and al-Maliki said: “The role played by the UK combat forces is drawing to a close. These forces will have completed their tasks in the first half of 2009 and will then leave Iraq.”
On Tuesday, the Iraqi council of ministers agreed to a new resolution allowing troops to remain in the country until the end of July. It sets the end of May as the final date for combat operations.
Speaking at a press conference after the talks, Brown said: “We have agreed today that the mission will end no later than May 31 next year. Our troops will be coming home within the next two months [after that].
“The biggest reduction will be at the end part of the period we are talking about.”
Brown added: “It is important to remember we have been engaged in the most difficult and challenging of work: the tasks of overthrowing a dictatorship, the task of building a democracy for the future and defending it against terrorism.
“We have made a huge contribution and of course given people an economic stake in the future of Iraq. We leave Iraq a better place.
“I am proud of the contribution British forces have made. They are the pride of Britain and the best in the world.”
Al-Maliki confirmed that the agreement included a provision for the Iraqi government to request an extension of the British military presence. However, both leaders indicated that it was not expected to be used.
Like the United States, Britain has been negotiating with the Iraqi government on the future of its military presence there. Ahead of Brown’s arrival, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said those talks were making “good progress.”
Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, chief of the defense staff, is accompanying Brown on the visit.
Also Wednesday in Baghdad, a double bombing in a commercial district killed 18 people and wounded dozens of others, with police officers among the casualties, an Iraqi Interior Ministry official said.
The first explosion was a car bomb, followed by a roadside bomb that targeted traffic police responding to the initial blast, the official said. Three of the dead were police officers, the official said. Another 52 people, including eight police, were wounded.