Prime Minister Gordon Brown has hailed the end of British combat operations in Iraq, saying the two countries were opening a new chapter in their relations.

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Speaking after talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Downing Street, he said London and Baghdad were launching a “long-term partnership of equals,” six years after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

“Today marks the closing chapter of the combat mission in Iraq,” he said. “The flag of 20 Armoured Brigade will be lowered as British combat patrols in Basra come to an end and our armed forces prepare to draw down.

“Today we are taking steps to strengthen and deepen our relationship and to make it a long-term partnership of equals,” he added.

The comments came shortly before the formal transfer of authority in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, and after a memorial service was held for the 179 British soldiers killed on duty.

The transfer of authority from Britain\’s commander in Basra to his US counterpart was due to take place at 1115 GMT in Basra.

In London, Brown underlined the significance of Thursday\’s ceremonies.

“Britain and Iraq have deep historical ties. The last six years have changed our relationship again,” he said.

“Today we open the next chapter in our relations, a chapter which I preface with my deep respect and appreciation for Iraq\’s achievements and my gratitude to Britain\’s armed forces who have made such a lasting contribution.”

British troop numbers were the second largest in the Iraq campaign, peaking at 46,000 at the height of combat operations that resulted in Saddam Hussein\’s ouster six years ago and his eventual execution for crimes against humanity.

The official withdrawal of forces was launched on March 31 when the pennant of the British headquarters in Basra was lowered and the base handed over to US control.

Brown added: “Today Iraq is a success story. We owe much of that to the efforts of British troops. Our mission has not always been an easy one, many have said that we would fail,” he said.

“Britain can be proud of our legacy that we leave there.”