Britain Closes Chapter in Iraq

By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 1, 2009

LONDON, April 30 -- British combat operations in Iraq formally ended Thursday, a month ahead of schedule, winding down a six-year mission that cost the lives of 179 British troops and was deeply unpopular in Britain.

"Today, Iraq is a success story. We owe much of that to the efforts of British troops," Prime Minister Gordon Brown said at a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at his 10 Downing Street office.

"Our mission has not always been an easy one; many have said that we would fail," Brown said. "Britain can be proud of our legacy that we leave there."

Brown said Britain's combat operations, which began with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003, officially concluded Thursday when a British armored brigade handed over its duties in the southern city of Basra to the U.S. military.

Most of the 4,000 remaining British troops are scheduled to leave the country in the coming weeks, though about 400 sailors and Royal Marines will remain to help train Iraqi naval forces. At the peak in 2003, Britain had 46,000 troops in Iraq.

The Iraq war has been profoundly divisive in Britain and was a key reason Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped down in June 2007. Blair's enthusiastic support of the war, and his close partnership with President George W. Bush, had steadily eroded his popularity.

Succeeding Blair, Brown has taken a more muted approach to the war, clearly stating his support for British forces in Basra but stressing the need for Britain to reduce and ultimately eliminate its combat presence there. He announced the decision to withdraw in December.

Appearing with Maliki, Brown said Britain and Iraq will now begin "a long-term partnership of equals," including a bilateral agreement on "the future role that we can plan in training and protecting the oil supplies of Iraq."

But the withdrawal of combat troops is unlikely to end debate about Iraq in Britain. David Cameron, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, immediately called for a full-scale inquiry into Britain's role in the war, similar to the government investigation that followed the Falklands War in 1982.

Earlier Thursday, Defense Secretary John Hutton led a memorial service in Basra for the 234 troops who died in coalition operations there, including 179 British troops and others from the United States, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and Romania.

"It's been a long and hard campaign. There's been no question about that, and we've paid a very high price," Hutton said. "But I think when the history is written of this campaign, they will say of the British military: 'We did a superb job.' "

Among Iraqis in Basra, the handover was viewed as a relatively minor event, largely because the British military's presence has shrunk in recent years.

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