Thursday, April 30, 2009
British troops are drawing near to the end of combat operations in Iraq after more than six years in the country.
The final withdrawal of the bulk of the 3,700 UK servicemen and women remaining in Iraq will speed up in the coming days and weeks.
This week British forces have been carrying out some of their final patrols outside the main coalition military base in Basra, southern Iraq, before handing over to the US military.
The end of combat missions will be another major landmark in a controversial and bloody military campaign that has lasted longer than the Second World War.
Britain's participation in the US-led war in Iraq has come at great cost: since the 2003 invasion toppling Saddam Hussein, 179 British personnel have lost their lives and many more have been injured.
The security situation in Basra province, where most UK forces are based, 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.
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.
The UK handed military control of coalition troops in Basra to the US Army at the end of March, and all but about 400 of the remaining British troops in Iraq will be withdrawn by July 31.