The US Marine Corps ended almost seven years of operations in Iraq yesterday, handing over duties to the regular army and signaling the beginning of an accelerated redeployment of American troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, US?vice-president Joe Biden held talks with Iraqi leaders amid growing tensions over plans to ban election candidates because of suspected links to Saddam Hussein's regime.

The White House worries the bans could raise questions over the fairness of the 7 March parliamentary elections, which are seen as an important step in the US pullout timetable.

The marines formally handed over control of Sunni-dominated Anbar, Iraq's largest province, to the army during a ceremony at a base in Ramadi ? where some of the fiercest fighting of the war took place.

The marines will be followed out by tens of thousands of soldiers in the coming months.