Wednesday, December 17, 2008

BRITAIN: Full Withdrawal from Iraq Announced (Report Just In from Baghdad)

Reporting from Baghdad -- Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain said British forces will cease operations in Iraq by May 31 and leave Iraq by the end of July, leaving the United States as the only foreign military presence in the country.

...The British withdrawal of its 4,100 troops had been anticipated. The war, which has killed at least 178 British troops, has been unpopular in Britain and became a liability to the governing Labor Party under Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair. When Brown became prime minister in 2007, he made clear that he planned to reduce greatly the British presence in Iraq. His initial plan, to bring the British troop numbers down to about 2,500 by end of last year and to withdraw completely by the end of 2008, stalled amid soaring militia violence last spring in the southern city of Basra, where the British contingent is based.

But Brown and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, at a news conference today during Brown's surprise visit, said violence has subsided in the south and Iraqi security forces are better equipped to stand on their own.

"We have agreed today that the mission will end no later than the 31st of May next year," Brown said. The movement of all troops and equipment out of the country will take about two months after that, he said.

Brown's visit came a day after Iraq's Cabinet passed onto Parliament a resolution outlining the withdrawal timetable. Brown urged Iraq's national Parliament to approve the pact.

It is similar to the Status of Forces Agreement governing the U.S. troop presence that was approved by Parliament on Nov. 27. It takes effect Jan. 1, 2009, and replaces the United Nations mandate currently overseeing foreign forces in Iraq. That mandate expires on Jan. 1, so foreign countries wishing to keep soldiers here afterward had to negotiate new agreements with Iraq's government.

The pact governing the British operation also includes about 500 troops from Australia, Romania, El Salvador, and a handful of other nations.

In the past year, British troops had rarely ventured into Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, and confined themselves to a base on the outskirts of the city. When Maliki's offensive against Shiite militias in Basra led to major violence across the city, it was U.S. troops, not the British ones, who played the leading role in backing up Iraqi forces with air and ground support.

Although the city is now relatively stable, provincial elections due to be held Jan. 31 are expected to fuel political tensions between rival groups vying for power in the oil-rich region.

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