Friday, May 1, 2009

Exit Iraq: British troops bow out of Basra - Evening Standard

British military operations in Iraq officially ended today as a ceremony to mark the completion of six years of combat missions took place in Basra.

The culmination of what has been one of the most controversial campaigns of recent times came as Britain's commander in Iraq conducted a formal transfer of authority to his US counterpart.

The sombre ceremony means the 4,100 UK troops still in the country will no longer go on patrol. Instead, they will remain at their base as their withdrawal speeds up over the coming weeks. Today's transfer of power was also marked by a memorial service held to commemorate the 179 British servicemen and women who died and the hundreds who had been injured since the conflict began in March 2003.

The service, attended by Defence Secretary John Hutton, conducted at the memorial wall in front of 20th Armoured Brigade's HQ in the main coalition military base in Basra, began as the name of each victim was read out.

Names of the Italian, Dutch, Danish, US and Romanian troops and the civilian contractors who had died since the start of Britain's mission, codenamed Operation Telic, were also read out. The ceremony ended with the playing of the Last Post by a bugler and prayers. The British arrival in 2003 was greeted with enthusiasm by Basra's mainly Shia residents, who had suffered under Saddam Hussein. But the mood changed as looting, rising crime and a failure to improve water, electricity and other supplies quickly, led to a loss of local support and an increasingly difficult security situation.

By 2006, British control had weakened amid a succession of clashes with Shia militants. An operation last year by Iraqi forces wrested back control of the city and security has since improved, although there are still signs of underlying tensions.

Today's formal handover of authority follows an earlier transfer of military control in Basra to the US. Under the timetable with the Iraqi government, all but a contingent of about 400 British troops, who will remain in support roles, will be pulled out by 31 July.

Attention is likely to return to the debate over how the Government built its legal and political case to justify entering the conflict. Foreign Secretary David Miliband pledged that a formal inquiry would begin "as soon as practically possible" after the end of July.

Speaking at today's memorial service, Mr Hutton paid tribute to those who had taken part in Britain's mission. "Their sacrifice must not be forgotten," he said. "British forces have helped to set Basra on the path towards enduring stability and economic growth."

Brigadier Tom Beckett, commander of 20th Armoured Brigade, added: "We leave knowing we have done our job, and done it well. We leave with our heads held high."

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