Saturday, May 2, 2009
HERO Brit soldiers were told their Iraq War was won yesterday as top brass told them: “Come home with your heads held high.”
Soldiers learned the campaign was ending a month ahead of schedule after six gruelling years of battling for control of the south of the country.
After the announcement was made, a platoon of 36 squaddies from 5th Battalion, The Rifles and the Royal Engineers completed the final patrol through the streets of Basra.
Then, in moving ceremonies, tributes were paid to their fallen comrades as the flag of the 20th Armoured Brigade was lowered for the last time.
The names of the 234 service personnel killed in southern Iraq since 2003 – 179 of them Brits – were read out before British officials handed control of the region to American forces.
The withdrawal of 3,700 troops still in the country will now be stepped up.
The momentous day began with a memorial service for the servicemen and women who died in the campaign – which at 2,232 days was longer than either of the World Wars. Pipers played for the 29 minutes it took to read through the list of the fallen, which included American, Danish, Italian, Dutch, and Romanian troops and civilian workers as well as UK squaddies.
Bugler Gareth Roberts, 25, from Shrewsbury, of 5 Rifles, played the Last Post and the troops saluted their colleagues in a minute’s silence.
The chaplain of 20th Armoured Brigade, Father Paschal Hanrahan, said: “Each name is unique and each name tells a story, the story of a son or a daughter, a husband or wife, a father or a mother.
“Each name will invoke powerful memories, not least for the families and loved ones back home who are in our thoughts and prayers today.”
Brigadier Tom Beckett, commander of 20th Armoured Brigade, then handed over to Colonel Butch Kievenaar, commander of the US Army’s 2nd Brigade 4th Infantry Division.
Brig Beckett said the job had been immensely satisfying. “We are sad to leave our Iraqi friends, but we leave knowing we have done our job, and done it well,” he said.
US Army Major General Michael Oates paid tribute to 20th Armoured Brigade’s achievements in Basra. “Your soldiers have earned their place in history and they can return home with the confidence of a job well done,” he told Brig Beckett.
General Raymond Odierno, the commanding officer of the Allied forces in Iraq, said our boys had been “nothing short of brilliant”. He added: “The people of Iraq have found no better friend, and no better, more reliable partner, than the United Kingdom.”
Defence Secretary John Hutton, who flew to Iraq for the events, said it was a “very moving day” and spoke of his pride in the UK’s armed forces. “You have to be made of steel not to feel a very strong sense of emotion about our losses.”
But he stressed the deaths had “not been in vain”. “Basra is a better place for our men and women being there and I pay tribute to all of them.”
About 400 UK troops will remain in Iraq after the main pull-out, which must be completed by July 31.