Monday, March 30, 2009

The beginning of the end of Britain’s military mission in Iraq - The Times

Deborah Haynes in Baghdad

Striking up Glorious Victory, a Royal Marines band marched into the grounds of an Iraqi base in Basra yesterday to open a farewell feast that marks the beginning of the end of Britain’s military mission in Iraq.

The band from Plymouth, flown in for the occasion, performed seven numbers, including a spot by four drummers. Speeches and a spread of chicken, rice, fish and salad followed, washed down with fizzy drinks and bowls of ice cream.

Yesterday’s party is the latest step in a carefully choreographed handover that ultimately will end all foreign forces’ presence in Iraq. The jovial atmosphere was tinged with sadness as Iraqis bid farewell to their British counterparts who have been a part of Basra life since 2003.

Glorious Victory is not the usual phrase used to describe the outcome of the past six years, with much work still to be done, but British commanders are upbeat about the future and feel that they leave Basra a better place. “As we sit here now, having completed the UK’s military tasks, we look to the future with – I’ve got to say – a huge amount of optimism, which I think reflects the way people now view life in Basra,” Major-General Andy Salmon, the leading British officer in the south, told a crowd of British, Iraqi and US officials.

Major-General Mohammed Huweidi, the commander of Iraqi forces in the province, said: “I would like to thank the British nation for helping us rid ourselves of dictatorship and live in freedom and democracy.”

Britain’s mission in Iraq experienced undulating highs and lows, from troops patrolling the streets in soft berets and no body armour in the early days to soldiers diving to the ground to avoid mortars and rockets fired by extremist militias who overran Basra until as recently as last year. In total, 179 British personnel have died since the invasion and many more have been injured. Billions of pounds have been spent on equipment, manpower and reconstruction work, which continues.

In the most significant turning point, Iraqi forces, backed by US and British troops, finally regained control of the province 12 months ago in an operation launched by Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister. The offensive brought security, enabled reconstruction work to gather pace and allowed Britain to finalise an exit plan, with most of its remaining 4,100 troops due to pull out by the summer to be replaced by US forces.

As part of the transition, control of the British headquarters at a sprawling base next to Basra airport will be transferred to a US commander in the coming days. General Salmon and his division staff will then depart, heralding the start of a new era for the whole of the south.

From next month the US military will shut down a hub in central Iraq and merge it with the Basra operation, the nine provinces south of Baghdad falling under the new US mission out of Basra.

Although violence is down dramatically, a roadside bomb exploded yesterday in the path of a group of Iraqis in a reminder of the continuing potential for danger in the oil-rich south.

Two people were killed and six critically injured, according to Major-General Adel al-Ameri, the police chief. Ten arrests had been made, he said. “We don’t want to allow the enemy to make problems and kill the people.”

Colonel Richard Stanford, who is handing over his role as adviser to General Mohammed to an American officer, said that the US task would be “subtly different” from the that of the outgoing British military. “They have been invited down here to keep a very light hand on the tiller of security, but really help with reconstruction and economic development,” he said.

Some 500 British Forces personnel will also remain in Iraq after the summer, largely to help with training the Iraqi Navy and to work at an Iraqi staff college.

With one of the world’s largest oil reserves and Iraq’s only port, Basra has huge potential, provided security remains stable and a newly elected provincial council makes good on promises to improve essential services, such as electricity and water, and to create jobs.

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