On a surprise visit to Iraq, British PM Gordon Brown confirmed that the UK's 4,100 troops stationed in Iraq would end combat by May 2009 and complete their withdrawal by July. Meanwhile, a twin bomb blast in downtown Baghdad killed 18.
REUTERS - British Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Iraq on Wednesday, a day after the Iraqi cabinet drafted a law paving the way for British forces to withdraw in 2009, more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion.
Brown's fourth trip to Iraq as prime minister came on the heels of a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush, who had to dodge shoes thrown by an Iraqi journalist angry at the sectarian slaughter unleashed by the invasion.
Shortly after Brown met Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to discuss future relations, twin bomb blasts in Baghdad killed 18 and wounded 53, in a bloody reminder of the violence that swept Iraq for years and which has only recently begun to wane.
"The role played by the UK combat forces is drawing to a close. These forces will have completed their tasks in the first half of 2009 and will then leave Iraq," Brown and Maliki said in a joint statement.
"But the partnership between the two countries will continue to take on new dimensions."
Britain, Iraq's former colonial power, was the United States' main partner in the war. Its forces have shrunk to just 4,100 soldiers now based near the southern city of Basra, where Brown headed after a brief visit to Baghdad.
Its withdrawal is expected to help it focus on Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other groups are stepping up attacks.
Britain has said it will immediately transfer helicopters from Iraq to Afghanistan, helping transport its 8,300 troops based there around the battlefield, but there are no plans to increase troop numbers at this stage.
British defence sources say it has become almost impossible to sustain military operations in two theatres, with the relatively small army severely overstretched.
The law setting out the terms for the British withdrawal from Iraq also covers the remaining Australian, Estonian, Romanian, Salvadoran and NATO troops, and must be approved by the Iraqi parliament.
It sets the end of May as the final date for combat operations and end-July as the withdrawal date.
Britain at one point sent 45,000 troops to fight in Iraq, but huge public opposition to the war at home prompted the government to gradually curtail combat operations.
WILLING COALITION DWINDLES
Most of the countries in what Bush called the "coalition of the willing" have left Iraq as violence eases, and Iraqi police and soldiers take on greater responsibility for fighting remaining insurgents.
The draft law is akin to a "status of forces" agreement which Iraq signed with the United States and which was approved by the Iraqi parliament only after fierce debate.
The U.S. security pact allows the 140,000 or so U.S. forces in the country to remain until the end of 2011 but calls for them to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of next June.
Britain says its work in the country is now done and that Basra and Iraq's main oil fields and oil ports in the south are now safely in the hands of Iraqi security forces.
"They've done some of the most difficult work ... building a democracy for the future and defending it against terrorism," Brown said of the 100,000 British soldiers he estimated had served in Iraq since 2003.
However, once the British troops pull out, a substantial U.S. force is expected to move south to oversee security, and the training of Iraqi security forces will probably continue for several years more.
The British-Iraqi Basra Development Commission says there are plans for at least $9 billion in oil-related investment in the region in the coming years.
Date created : 2008-12-17