During a visit to Baghdad, British PM Gordon Brown announced that the remaining 4,100 troops stationed in Basra will head home by summer. This will allow the UK to focus more on Afghanistan.
Iraqi soldiers will fill the void left by UK troops who leave Basra by the end of July.
In his fourth trip to Baghdad as British prime minister, Gordon Brown announced that UK forces will be leaving Iraq by July 2009. Brown was in Iraq on Wednesday, Dec. 17, to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a day after the Iraqi government drafted a law paving the way for the troop withdrawal next year and six years after the Britain joined in the US-led invasion.
"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 al-Maliki said in a joint statement, followed by a press conference.
At its peak, Britain had 45,000 troops stationed in Iraq, but huge public opposition to the unpopular war at home led the government to reduce combat operations. Now over 4,000 British troops are serving in the southern Iraqi region of Basra, where Brown is headed after the impromptu Baghdad visit.
Iraqis take on bigger role in fighting insurgents
The troop withdrawal announcement comes in the immediate aftermath of twin bomb attacks in Baghdad that killed at least 18 people and wounded scores of others, as a bloody reminder of the terrorist attacks that have been endemic for years in Iraq.
Bomb attacks still occur in Baghdad, but are diminishing
Most of the countries in the what US President George Bush has coined as the "coalition of the willing" have left Iraq as the violence has eased, and Iraqi police and soldiers assume a greater role for fighting the remaining insurgents.
The draft law is similar to a "status of forces" pact which Iraq had previously signed with the US, which allows some 140,000 forces to remain until the end of 2011, but stipulates a troop withdrawal from Iraqi cities by June.
Once British troops pull out, a substantial US contingent is expect to be stationed in the south to oversee security operations and training of Iraqi security forces.
All British troops coming home by end of July
At the press conference, Brown outlined the planned British withdrawal. "We have agreed today that the (combat) mission will end no later that May 31 next year. Our troops will be coming home two months (later).
"The biggest reduction (in troops) will be at the end part of the period we are talking about," he said.
Brown added that Britain's work in Iraq is now done and that the country's main oil fields in the south are now safely in the hands of Iraqi security forces.
Brown, right, wants to shift focus to Afghanistan
"They've done some of the most difficult work ... building a democracy for the future and defending it against terrorism," Brown said of the estimated 100,000 British soldiers who have served in Iraq since 2003.
The partnership between Britain and Iraq will continue and take on new dimensions though.
For one, the British-Iraqi Basra Development Commission says there are plans for at least $9 billion in oil-related investments in the southern region in upcoming years.
Troop withdrawal allows UK to focus on Afghanistan
Iraq's Maliki also added that the agreement included a provision that allows a few hundred British military advisors to remain in place to help the Iraqi government adjust to the troop withdrawal.
Britain's withdrawal from Iraq is expected to help it focus on Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents are stepping up violent attacks.
The British military has said it will immediately divert helicopters from Iraq to Afghanistan, helping to transport its 8,300 troops based there around the battlefield. Sustaining military operations in both countries has become nearly impossible with an overstretched army, according to British defense ministry sources.
The draft law setting out the terms for the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq also covers the remaining Australian, Estonian, Romanian, Salvadoran and NATO troops, and needs to be approved by the Iraqi parliament.