Thursday, April 30, 2009

The last days of British forces in Iraq - BBC

The end of the UK's military presence in Iraq is imminent after six years.

A memorial service is taking place in Basra for the 179 British personnel who have died during the conflict, attended by Defence Secretary John Hutton.

The focus is a memorial wall featuring the names of the 234 British and foreign troops who lost their lives on the UK-led operation in Iraq.

Defence officials say plans for the withdrawal of British forces in Iraq are well advanced.

They began their official pull-out last month when the UK's commander in the south of the country, Maj Gen Andy Salmon, handed over to a US general.

British troops took a step closer to withdrawal at the start of the year when Basra International Airport - used as a UK military base during the conflict - was passed to full Iraqi control.

The names of those who died on the UK's Operation Telic were read out at the memorial service, including Italian, Dutch, Danish, American and Romanian troops.

BBC News defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt says there is a sense of relief for many British servicemen and women that their final tour of Iraq is winding down.

Some are now serving on their fourth tour, taking them away from home for two years out of the last six.

Our correspondent says many of them will look back with mixed emotions.

Southern Iraq is more peaceful than it was a year ago but when British forces invaded Iraq as part of the US-led coalition in 2003 few people imagined troops would still be in the country six years later.

As British forces prepare to leave Iraq, senior commanders admit they have learned lessons from the campaign.

It was a conflict that showed the strengths and weaknesses of the British armed forces.

There were acts of great heroism but also a force that came under great strain, fighting on two fronts - in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Asked about the UK presence in Iraq, the country's president, Jalal Talabani, told BBC News: "This is a mission of liberation. For the first time British forces in Iraq are playing this role.

"In the past the British forces came to occupy against the will of the Iraqi people. This time they came here to liberate Iraqi people from the worst kind of dictatorship."

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