Wednesday, April 15, 2009
The countdown is under way for the final withdrawal of British forces from Iraq.
Next month, a flag-lowering ceremony in Basra will complete the transfer of authority to American troops.
The bulk of more than 4,000 UK servicemen and women will then head for home.
It marks the end of one of the most controversial operations since the Second World War, which has lasted more than six years and cost 179 British lives.
For most of the last year, the tide of battle has been running in favour of British forces now into their last month of patrolling.
Yet although insurgent activity has subsided dramatically, the troops of the Army's riverine squad stay alert as their shallow-draught launches skim the salt marshes around Basra.
The enemy has used the network of waterways as perfect cover for launching rocket and mortar attacks on the main coalition base two miles away.
The men of 5 Rifles and 35 Engineer Regiment remain vigilant in case the insurgents should be planning an unwelcome parting gift.
Meanwhile, in the city itself, soldiers of the Princess of Wales' Royal Regiment were dismounting the machine guns from their armoured vehicles in the final days of their third tour.
"We've spent enough time here, we've helped them out enough," said Cpl Nathaniel Wrigglesworth.
His colleague Lance Cpl Paul Woods added: "Now is probably the best time to go. We can actually see it from start to finish."
In British cookhouses - newly designated as "dining facilities" - they serve iced coffee and burgers alongside the fish and chips.
Some 3,400 American troops are moving in, part of a US force that may remain for another two years.
When the MoD ordered the withdrawal to this fortified base 18 months ago, sources close to US command were reported as saying "the British had lost Basra".
The Pentagon's senior military adviser in the city denies any rift over the decision to pull out first.
"Their leadership has made the decision that it's time to move on and work in another location," insisted Lt Col Angelo Johnson.
"We have to agree that they've made the right decision."
Were widespread violence to return, it is inconceivable Britain would come back to such a contentious mission that put such strain on its military.
Helicopters and troops are needed in the growing battle for Afghanistan.
For better or worse, it is now up to the Iraqis themselves to secure the fragile peace and ensure lives lost so far are not in vain.