Without fanfare or much thanks, Britain departs from Iraq

Five years and 10 months after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Gordon Brown yesterday announced a date for Britain's final disengagement from the most bitter, controversial military involvement of recent history. He made the momentous announcement during a brief visit to the country during which the details of the withdrawal of the last remaining 4,100-strong force were settled with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

The British military mission will officially cease at the end of May with the troops completing their departure in the next two months. A team of just a few hundred will stay behind to train the Iraqi armed services, without taking any further part in combat duties.

The withdrawal deal, which has been before the Iraqi council of ministers, will shortly be put to the Iraqi parliament where, said officials in Baghdad, it will be formally passed in the next few weeks.

American troops will be moving down from Baghdad to set up headquarters in Basra with a force of around 4,000. As well as monitoring security in the region they will also guard the Iranian border and protect supply lines from Kuwait until the US withdraws its own forces in 2011. There is also apprehension that the forthcoming provincial elections set for the end of January may lead to a renewal of violence among parties with paramilitary links seeking to control the region's lucrative oil wealth. A serious outbreak of bloodletting would severely test Britain's exit strategy.

After his talks in Baghdad, Mr Brown flew to Basra to meet British troops at their one remaining base at the airport. He laid a wreath at a memorial wall for the 178 members of UK forces who had lost their lives in the conflict as Royal Marines buglers played The Last Post. The wall would be taken back to Britain rather than left to an uncertain future in Basra, senior officers said.

Soldiers of 5 Rifles battalion were in Basra to hear Mr Brown declare that the war was finally over.

For these men, who have seen the worst of the violence in this conflict, the advent of relative peace in the city was a vindication of their sacrifice. Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edward Chamberlain, 40, said of the controversy regarding the war back home: "It is healthy to have a debate about important matters and I welcome that. But we had a job to do here and the fact is that Basra is now a far better place.

"It is heartening to see that life is coming back into the city and there is thriving business. I believe that the future for this city and Iraq is a very good one.

"Basra had been badly neglected under Saddam and one cannot deny that the people had very little freedom. They are now in a position to use their voice and decide their future for themselves; that is their right."

Lance Corporal Nathan Mustoe, 27, who has taken part in four tours, said: "I am a medic and I have had to deal with some pretty terrible situations, some really bad injuries. One of the best things about the fall-off in violence is that we can now go out and work with local people and help them a lot more easily. Obviously the families at home were worried, but this is what we do. I would like to come back to Iraq one day."

As a Christian woman married to a Sunni in the overwhelmingly Shia south, Juliana Dawood Yusef was certainly at risk when Shia militias were in control of Basra. The professor of linguistics at Basra University could do little to help as some of her female students were murdered and others fled after threats.

"It is true that the British did not do anything like enough to confront the militias at the time despite the fact we told them what was going on, people felt let down," she said.

"But they have tried hard since and I think overall it was a good thing that they were here. Unfortunately most people here would not see that picture, they feel that democracy has not helped them – they do not trust the politicians. The British will receive no thanks from many people."

Hakim Haidar Ali, a 37-year-old carpenter, held that with Iraqi forces now seemingly able to take on the militia there was simply no reason for the British to stay on.

"It was our army which fought them and Basra is now better," said Mr Ali. "There is no reason for the British to stay here any longer. It has now been many years since they arrived. I am glad they overthrew Saddam, but it is time their soldiers to go home. We'll be happy to see other British people visit us, Basra is a beautiful city."

After Basra, the Prime Minister flew to the port of Um Qasar, where a burgeoning trade is held up by US and British officials as an example of the successful commercial future for Iraq.

Mr Brown denied that he was using economic progress as an excuse to abort an unpopular mission without reaching any of the targets for success set by his predecessor Tony Blair.

More than 100,000 British soldiers have served in Iraq and the legacy Britain leaves behind is, like the war itself, a matter of fierce dispute. As the British and Iraqi governments issued a joint communiqué in Baghdad, twin bomb attacks echoed through the Iraqi capital, killing 18 people and injuring dozens of others. British officials maintain, however, that the situation in Basra is different, and has vastly improved in recent times.

Local people bitterly complained at the time that the British forces had stayed inside their barricaded base and abandoned them to the widespread lawlessness, and there was also criticism from Prime Minister Maliki, who accused the British of failing to confront the militias.

British officials and commanders privately accuse Mr Maliki of hypocrisy, pointing out that his government had, in the past, urged the UK to stop operations against the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army because it wanted Mr Sadr's political support.

Much of the improvement came after a spring offensive, Operation Charge of the Knights, led by Iraqi troops with US and British support, which targeted Shia militias, in particular the Mehdi Army.

The head of UK armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, who was accompanying Mr Brown on the visit to Iraq, robustly defended the actions of British soldiers. He insisted that they had done a "magnificent job and had certainly not been beaten by the militias".

* The US State Department is making plans to replace the security contractor Blackwater in Iraq. A departmental report suggests the company, which is used to protect diplomats, could lose its licence to operate in the country. The review was ordered after Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians in Baghdad last year. Five guards have been charged with manslaughter.

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