Six years and four months after the invasion of Iraq almost all remaining British forces are leaving the country quietly, without any ceremony.
To the embarrassment of the UK Government, the 150 military personnel are having to relocate to Kuwait after the Iraqi parliament failed to ratify an agreement by Friday. Without this accord the troops do not have any legal right to stay on.
British officials insisted yesterday this was a temporary setback and that the force would return once the Iraqi parliament got around to addressing the issue after dealing with more pressing matters such as the elections in Kurdistan.
A British embassy spokesman, Jawwad Syed, said the delay was procedural and that the remaining British forces would pull back to Kuwait until the issue was resolved. The troops' existing mandate expires on 31 July.
"The guys who were doing the training are temporarily moving out to Kuwait while we talk to the Iraqi government about what we might do in the interim," Mr Syed said. "We have general broad support for our agreement... we're hopeful that when we have the next parliamentary session, we should achieve a ratification."
An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said that talks were under way to find an interim solution. "The government considers it a benefit to have British forces for training purposes," he said.
However parliamentary supporters of the radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr took a hard line. "We will insist on blocking this agreement even after the end of the parliament's recess," said MP Falah Shanshal. "We reject any foreign presence on our waters and land."
At the end of May Britain pulled two ships out of Iraqi waters, leaving the US to protect the country's vital oil platforms with help from the fledgling Iraqi navy. British combat troops began to leave the country at the end of April this year after control of Basra was handed to the Americans.
In a letter, dated 24 July, to his Conservative counterpart Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, Bob Ainsworth, said the Government had been "deliberately keeping a low public profile" on the issue so as not to increase the risk to UK forces.
"We paused our training of the Iraqi navy and protection of Iraq's oil platforms when our current permissions expired on 31 May, pending ratification of a new bilateral agreement," he wrote. "Unfortunately, this process has not yet concluded and the previously agreed deadline for withdrawing our military personnel is upon us.
"We are now withdrawing temporarily our remaining military personnel from the country – initially to Kuwait... In parallel, we are exploring with the Iraqi government the possibility of resuming some or all of our planned naval activity in advance of ratification." At the height of combat operations in the months after the US-led invasion, Britain had 46,000 troops in Iraq. Washington still has about 130,000 troops in Iraq.
The UK's withdrawal from Basra was criticised by some members of the US administration for putting pressure on American troops attempting to cope with a rise in violence in the aftermath of the "surge".
At the weekend Nato made an agreement with the Iraqi Ministry of Defence to continue its training programme, which had also been due to expire on 31 July. The Nato accord includes a group of British troops helping to train Iraqi army officers at a military college near Baghdad. Their work will not be affected by the stalled Britain-Iraq agreement.
Mr Fox said: "This would be an excellent Whitehall farce were it not so serious. The Government has added diplomatic incompetence to its mismanagement of the armed forces. This all means that our armed forces will be unable to complete the job they were asked to do, as they will now be stuck in Kuwait awaiting resolution of this political fiasco."Reuse content