UK troops 'end Iraq mission next year'

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The Independent Online

UK forces will leave Iraq by next July, the countries' Prime Ministers announced today.

Gordon Brown and his Iraqi counterpart, Nouri Maliki, made the announcement in a joint statement released as they held talks in Baghdad.

They 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."

The premiers added that the partnership between the two countries would continue.

Yesterday, the Iraqi council of ministers agreed a new resolution allowing British troops to remain in the country until the end of July.

Their current United Nations mandate expires at the end of the month.

British officials say the resolution merely set a last possible date for the vast majority of Britain's 4,100-strong contingent to be gone.

Mr Brown confirmed the outlines of the plans today before updating the House of Commons in greater detail tomorrow.

The Prime Minister is being accompanied on the visit by the Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff.

Speaking at a press conference after the talks, Mr Brown indicated that military operations would be over by the end of May. The withdrawal would then take place until around July.

"We have agreed today that the mission will end no later than the 31st of May next year," Mr Brown said. "Our troops will be coming home within the next two months (after that)."

He went on: "The biggest reduction will be at the end part of the period we are talking about."

Mr 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.

Mr Brown said: "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."

He added: "I am proud of the contribution British forces have made. They are the pride of Britain and the best in the world."