It has been a campaign as mired in controversy as it has been costly in lives. But yesterday, almost exactly six years to the day after British forces rolled into Iraq, they began to leave.
Major General Andy Salmon handed over military command of the southern area of the country to his US counterpart, Major General Michael Oates, signifying the start of the withdrawal of most of the UK's 4,100 personnel from Basra. British combat operations in Iraq will end on 31 May and all but 400 troops will leave by the end of July. The 400 remaining British soldiers will chiefly be training Iraqi Army officers and working as part of the Naval Transition Team. All will be aware that 179 of their comrades have lost their lives since the invasion in 2003.
"We remember, particularly at such a time, those who paid the ultimate price in this endeavour, those who suffered injury and disablement in order that we might get to this point today," said Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, who was in Iraq for the handover ceremony alongside the American General Ray Odierno, commanding general of coalition forces in Iraq. Later the Royal Marines Band played "Sunset" as the pennant of the UK's Combined Amphibious Forces was lowered and replaced by that of the American 10th Mountain Division flag.
While the mood in Basra was yesterday described by the Army as "reflective but positive," a suicide bombing at a police station in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which left eight dead and 12 more injured, was a reminder that the violence continues. It was the latest in a string of attacks this month, raising fears that insurgents are attempting to regroup only three months before US troops are due to withdraw from the cities.
However, the British insist the situation in Basra has been more stable. In the past eight months there have been five attacks on the main base, in comparison to 28 in March last year alone.
As a result the Defence Secretary, John Hutton, said yesterday that the UK led Multi-National Division South-East and US-led Baghdad-based MND Centre would be merged in Basra as Iraqi Security Forces were able to deliver security in the south with only minimal coalition assistance. For the Americans the route south to Kuwait remains essential as they prepare to to remove two brigades themselves by the end of the end of the summer.
Gordon Brown said that he was proud of the job British servicemen and women had done. "There have been difficult times along the way, but British troops have made an outstanding contribution to laying the ground for a stable and increasingly prosperous Basra – part of a stable, secure and prosperous Iraq," he said.
Yesterday, a bright pink trailer offering "pretzel dogs" was a sign that the Americans had begun moving into the British base, having been warned by their unofficial website that they will have to endure more spartan living conditions until the luxuries to which US forces are accustomed are built.
Iraq in numbers
4,259 US military deaths since invasion.
179 UK military deaths since invasion.
99,500 Highest estimate of Iraqi civilian deaths.
£8.5bn Cost of UK operations in Iraq.
18,000 Number of UK troops in Iraq, May 2003.
4,000 Number of UK troops in Iraq, April 2009.
400 British troops in Iraq after 31 May.
48 Life expectancy of average Iraqi man.
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