April 30th, 2009
British Forces have formally ended combat operations in Iraq today in a move that means they are finally returning home after more than six years. The drawdown of the bulk of the 3,700 UK troops remaining in Iraq will now speed up in the coming days.
Britain formally passed authority for operations in southern Iraq to US forces.
The move – a month earlier than timetabled – was disclosed as Defence Secretary John Hutton flew into Basra for a service to honour the 179 British personnel who lost their lives in the conflict.
Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister, declared Britain and Iraq have now begun a “long-term partnership of equals”.
After talks in Downing Street with Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki, Mr Brown said: “Today we are taking steps to strengthen and deepen our relationship and to make it a long-term partnership of equals.
“Today marks the closing chapter of the combat mission in Iraq. The flag of 20 Armoured Brigade will be lowered as British combat patrols in Basra come to an end and our armed forces prepare to draw down.”
Meanwhile, UK troops carried out their final patrols outside the main coalition military base in Basra before handing over to the Americans. The end of combat missions marks a major landmark in a controversial and bloody military campaign that has lasted 2,232 days – longer than both World Wars.
Britain’s participation in the US-led war in Iraq has come at great human and financial cost.
The security situation in Basra province has improved significantly in the past year.
A major Iraqi army-led operation against militias in Basra city known as Charge of the Knights, which began in March last year, has resulted in far fewer insurgent attacks.
But there are still signs of underlying tensions.
On Tuesday night an Iraqi soldier was attacked while on patrol with a small group of journalists in the deprived Hyyaniyah area of Basra city.
A man came up behind him and tried to slit his throat, but the soldier caught the assailant, threw him to the ground and fired two shots at his head, according to witnesses.
His Iraqi army unit fired further warning shots before taking the lightly wounded soldier and his badly injured attacker to hospital.
The British military is keen to focus attention away from the bloodshed over the past six years and towards the improvements achieved on the ground in Basra.
One senior British officer made the point by quoting the words of the top US commander in Iraq General Ray Odierno: “It’s not about how it started, it’s all about how it ends.”
Despite the formal end of offensive operations by British troops today, they retain the right to defend themselves and their convoys if they come under attack.
The UK handed military control of coalition troops in Basra to the US army at the end of March.
All but about 400 of the remaining British troops in Iraq will be withdrawn by July 31.