Wednesday, April 29, 2009
The British mission in Iraq is to draw to a formal close with the end of combat operations that have cost 179 lives.
By Damien McElroy in Basra and Thomas Harding, Defence Correspondent
Troops have been given the order to pull out, six years after the invasion to topple Saddam Hussein and seize his alleged stockpile of weapons of mass destruction.
As Operation Telic, the official code name for the Iraq operation, comes to an official close the British yesterday claimed they had left Basra calmer than at any time since the destruction of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
A memorial service to those killed in Iraq will be held in Basra airbase as command is handed over to the Americans who will secure southern Iraq for their own proposed withdrawal next year.
When the bugler sounds the retreat at the service it will herald the end of a bloody and controversial campaign.
After some of the hardest urban fighting since the Second World War the British say they have left behind a city that can finally look forward to a prosperous future if civil war can be avoided.
A senior military officer said the British Army had fulfilled its mission to depose the Baath party and introduce democracy.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we are leaving Iraq a vastly better place than it was under Saddam," he said.
"We removed a brutal dictator, Iraq is now a democracy. The Iraqi people are generally grateful for what has happened."
However British Forces have been widely criticised, even by American commanders and Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's prime minister, for failing to stop the Mahdi Army, the radical Shia militia from taking over the city.
Morale plummeted between 2004 and 2008 as British positions, particularly in Basra Palace – were besieged by mortar and rocket fire, mostly supplied by Iran.
Major James Faux, a company commander in 5 Rifles, said: "There's been a lot of blood and sacrifice in Iraq and while I can't speak for those left behind I believe we've done a good job and am satisfied they believed they were doing their best."
In the past year a measure of normality has returned to Basra – markets have reopened and basic services restored – as violence fell to a tenth of levels at the peak.
Much of the credit for the city's change of fortune lies in Mr Maliki's decision to retake the city through Operation Charge of the Knights in March last year.
Baghdad ordered the campaign without consulting British commanders and Mr Maliki later acknowledged it was a humiliating snub.
But a senior British official said Charge of the Knights marked a turning point in the campaign. "It was what we got done in the aftermath that made the difference," said the official.
Over the coming months the remaining 3,700 servicemen will withdraw from the country that at the height of the operation saw 46,000 British troops involved in the 2003 invasion.
The end of the operation comes at a time when the MoD announced yesterday that a further 700 troops will deploy to Afghanistan over the summer to provide extra security for the presidential elections.
Despite the reduction of the force from Iraq the military will still be operating far above its "planning assumptions" with 9,000 troops in Afghanistan putting strain on the overstretched forces.
But it is hoped that the withdrawal will give the Army in particular the opportunity to recuperate after six long years of constant fighting that has seen soldiers quit in droves fed up with constant operations.
British forces handed over military command in Basra to the US Army at the end of March and will complete the withdrawal of combat troops by July 31, leaving behind 400 service personnel mainly involved in training the Iraq navy.