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British leave Iraq

July 30, 2009

For the majority of British forces in Iraq, their six-year occupation comes to an end on July 31, a deadline set in an accord signed between London and Baghdad in 2008 for the full withdrawal of British troops.

British tanks in Basra
With Britain's withdrawal, Iraq will have to take care of its own securityImage: picture alliance/dpa

The withdrawal of all but approximately four hundred service personnel of the remaining 4000 British troops still on Iraqi soil brings to an end a six-year occupation during which – at its height in the months after the 2003 invasion – saw 46,000 troops involved in combat operations, making Britain the second-biggest member of the US-led coalition.

Britain began its scaling back at the turn of the year when it returned the southern Basra province and its airport to Iraqi control and then formally ceased combat operations and began its full withdrawal from the region on March 31. The British then transferred authority of its military headquarters in Basra to the United States at the end of April.

At the beginning of June, Britain and Iraq signed a draft agreement for British naval personnel to remain in the country beyond the agreed withdrawal date. According to the Iraqi government, around 400 British service personnel and five naval vessels would remain in the country in a "non-renewable" one-year deal. By 2010, even these troops will be gone and Britain's total withdrawal will be complete.

The withdrawal comes as Britain's Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth criticized his government in a newspaper interview in which he said it did not do enough to support frontline troops in the first years of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ainsworth said service personnel had been justified in their anger at a lack of interest in their efforts, from both the government and the wider public, in the early stages of the conflicts.

But he also told the Daily Telegraph on Friday that improvements had been made over the last two years to recognise and support the armed services.

"People were pretty cheesed off with the attitude not only of the government, but of the British public," he said. "They (troops) were out there in Iraq, they were out there in Afghanistan, they were doing hard yards and putting their lives on the line - and nobody back here was nearly as interested as they ought to have been."

Training of Iraqi forces gives military confidence

What the British leave behind in terms of the future security of the southern regions will be their legacy. How Basra responds to the end of Operation Telic will say much about whether it was a successful mission or not.

Peter Felstead, the editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, told Deutsche Welle that he believes that the stability of the south once the British and US forces finally leave will depend much on the training the Iraqi forces received from the British.

Iraqi police takes a defensive position in Basra
Iraqi forces, trained by the British, fought hard for BasraImage: AP

"The situation in Basra is certainly better than it was but in terms of the contribution of the British to security, the most significant must be the training of the Iraqi forces," Felstead said. "The most significant operation which did much to wrestle control of the city from the militias and insurgents was the Charge of the Knights, an Iraqi-led mission in March 2008."

It was the largest Iraqi operation since the 2003 invasion, explains Felstead and adds that the Iraqis prevailed after some heavy, street-to-street fighting. "It was real baptism of fire for many of the units and some of them broke but it was this operation which made them into a fighting force and gave them the belief that they could secure their own country."

The fact that the Iraqis could mount such an operation and defeat the Mahdi Army and other militias, and then secure and patrol Iraq's southern maritime borders is testament to the training they had from the British, said Felstead.

Concerns over violence in post-occupation Basra

Despite Western assertions that Iraqi forces can keep the peace in Basra and the south, there are concerns that when the British leave for good, followed by the full withdrawal of US forces over the next two years, the violence experienced during the post-invasion insurgency and escalating ethnic conflicts will explode once more.

Fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr with their weapons in Basra
Concerns are high about a return to militia warfareImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

"It is possible we will see fighting between militias again and also between militias and the Iraqi military once the British and US forces leave," Felstead said. "The real test will come when the Iraqis don't have the air support or back-up from the coalition."

Giles Merritt, the director of the Security & Defense Agenda Forum Europe, a Brussels-based think-tank, has similar concerns about a possible return to ethnic violence.

"We can only hope that Iraq's central government can deal with this situation as well as the US and Britain believe it can," he said. "The initial signs are quite positive but structural problems remain and these ethnic rivalries run deep." For Merritt the worst case scenario would be if the north and south of the country split up, with the north breaking away to form a new Kurdistan - which would prove disastrous if Turkey were to get involved - and with the south descending into a militia war, with the government, military and police taking sides. The best case scenario would be that Iraq remains hard to govern but not ungovernable.

Learning the lessons from a costly war

While success and failure may be difficult to assess, both Felstead and Merritt believe that it's important that Britain learns lessons from its involvement in Iraq.

A member of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, serving with the British Army's 16 Air Assault Brigade, keeps watch Saturday March 22, 2003, after securing the North Ramala oilfield in Iraq.
Mistakes were made before, during and after the Iraq warImage: AP

"By placing so much emphasis on the removal of Saddam Hussein, the British and the Americans ignored all the expert advice," Merritt said. "While Saddam was a brutal dictator, he actually kept the lid on the pot and controlled the warring factions. Once he was gone, the coalition found out that Iraq was not a real country as westerners would perceive one and that it had no real social cohesion. It's a patchwork nation, like Afghanistan, and this was where the post-invasion disaster began."

Merritt wonders whether any lessons were learned from the Iraq war. "One would hope that, militarily, it will have become clear if you send troops into a war without an exit strategy, with no real understanding of the tribal rivalries and historical feuds, and with no appreciation of the politics of the country with which you're engaging, it's asking for trouble."

As far as the political aspects are concerned, Merriit argues that there was no political concept in place for Iraq. "The same can be said, sadly, for Afghanistan."

"No-one had any real idea what was going to happen once the invasion was over," said Felstead. For instance, he said, the Americans and British were getting intelligence from Iraqi exiles which were telling them they would be greeted as heroes, as liberators. "The military and political planners had no concept of the reality of the situation and made some disastrous mistakes, such as disbanding the army. One must hope that both nations leave Iraq with a clearer idea of what it means to understand the intricacies of a nation and its culture, and learn from these mistakes."

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Michael Knigge