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Britain Says Its Iraq Mission Will End May 31

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced Wednesday that British troops will halt military operations in Iraq on May 31, with most soldiers leaving the country by the end of June.

Brown and al-Maliki made the announcement after a meeting in Baghdad. British officials had previously said the 4,100 soldiers based near the southern city of Basra would leave by mid-summer.

"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," Brown and al-Maliki said in a joint statement.

Britain once had 45,000 troops in Iraq, but the government's support for the U.S.-led war was very unpopular at home. British officials said they would move helicopters from their base in Iraq to Afghanistan, but they have no plans to increase troop numbers there.

Al-Maliki thanked British troops for their efforts to rid the country of terrorists and build a basis for democracy.

"We thank (British troops) for the efforts they have made for getting rid of dictatorship and terrorism. They have made a lot of sacrifices," al-Maliki said.

The British Defense Ministry said U.S. troops will take over the British base in Basra.

Despite general improvement in security, the announcement came on a deadly day in Iraq. A double bombing in eastern Baghdad killed at least 18 people and wounded 52 others, Iraqi police said.

The first blast took place Wednesday morning near the traffic police headquarters in the Nahda neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Moments later, a roadside bomb went off, police said.

The U.S. military says a roadside bomb exploded near an American patrol hours earlier in the same area but that there were no deaths or injuries.

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