UK to Pull Out of Iraq

BASRA ~ British forces will wrap up their mission in Iraq by the end of May, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said during a surprise visit to the country on Wednesday.

Britain’s 4,100 troops in Iraq will be out by the end of July, he said during a trip to Baghdad and British forces based in the main southern port city of Basra.

“By the end of May, or earlier, the mission will be completed,” Brown said at a joint press conference in Baghdad with his Iraqi opposite number Nuri al-Maliki.

Brown was on his fourth visit to Iraq since taking office last June, hot on the heels of a farewell trip by George W. Bush that was marked by an Iraqi journalist hurling his shoes at the US president.

Underscoring the still fragile state of security, nine people were killed and dozens wounded when a car bomb exploded outside a traffic police post in central Baghdad as Brown was visiting the capital.

But the British premier highlighted the improved situation overall, saying during a body armour-free visit to the southern port of Umm Qasr: “Most of the places I visited today I couldn’t have done a few months ago.”

Britain, Washington’s closest ally in the 2003 US-led invasion despite strong British public opposition to the war, has its troops in Iraq based at Basra airport outside the oil port city.

“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.

The timetable is in line with a bill approved by the Iraqi cabinet calling for all foreign troops except for American forces – whose deployment is governed by a landmark security pact – to end their missions by the end of May and pull out definitively by the end of July.

The draft legislation, which will be sent to parliament for approval, covers other forces including Australian and other small remaining contingents, an Iraqi government spokesman said.

“The proposed decision allows the Iraqi government to demand an early pullout of any of these forces or extend their stay for reasons related to training or technical assistance,” said Ali al-Dabbagh.

Under the so-called Status of Forces Agreement which will govern the presence of US troops when a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year, combat forces will withdraw from towns and cities by June 30 and from the entire country by the end of 2011.

Brown is to make a statement to the British parliament on Thursday on troop numbers in Iraq, but said the bulk of the pullout would come towards the end of the withdrawal window.

To avoid a repeat of the Bush shoe drama, extra guards were introduced at the Maliki-Brown press conference.

Later Brown visited troops at the Basra base and joked: “I was going to say before I spoke that you should take off your shoes because the favorite thing in Iraq these days are to throw shoes at people.”

Brown said the four key British military objectives required before the pullout were nearing completion.

These are training the Iraqi army in Basra, transferring Basra airport to civilian use, aiding local economic development and providing support for Iraq’s January 31 provincial elections.

British media reports have said the pullout is planned to begin in March if the polls pass off peacefully.

Brown toured Umm Qasr on an Iraqi patrol boat and met British forces training Iraqis so they can do the job of “protecting their own livelihoods and building a strong economy.”

At sunset, he laid a wreath in remembrance of the 178 British soldiers who have died since the invasion – 136 from hostile action.

The head of Britain’s armed forces said the pullout freed up troops but said they must not be sent to Afghanistan as Britain could not sustain such operation levels in the long-term.

“We cannot just have a one-for-one transfer. The net result must be a reduction in our overall operation campaign,” Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup said.

British troop numbers in the Iraq campaign peaked at 46,000 in March and April 2003 for the invasion which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein but plunged the country into years of deadly insurgency and near civil war.

Before returning home, Brown travelled to Kuwait City where he held talks with the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

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