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British Prime Minister Makes Unannounced Iraq Visit


BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has arrived in Baghdad, a day after the Iraqi cabinet drafted a law paving the way for British forces to withdraw 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 flying shoes thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist in a sign of the outrage many Iraqis feel over the sectarian slaughter unleashed by the invasion.

Brown met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other officials to discuss future relations with Britain, the United States' main partner in the war and Iraq's former colonial power.

"The role played by the U.K. 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. "But the partnership between the two countries will continue to take on new dimensions."

The law setting out the terms for the withdrawal of Britain's 4,100 troops also covers the lingering presence of 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 the end of July as the withdrawal date.

"We are very satisfied with what we have seen in the agreement and we expect that the Iraqi parliament will approve it very soon," said a senior British official who asked not to be identified.

British officials say they don't expect to have more than a handful of troops left in Iraq, carrying out some training exercises, after the formal withdrawal.

Britain at one point sent 45,000 troops to fight the Iraq war, but huge public opposition to the war at home prompted the government to gradually curtail combat operations.

Most of the countries in what Bush called the "coalition of the willing" have left Iraq as the horrific violence of the past few years 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.

'Work Is Done'

Britain says its work in the country is now done and that the southern region around the city of Al-Basrah and Iraq's main oil fields and oil ports, for which it was responsible, is safely in the hands of Iraqi security forces.

However, once the British troops pull out, a substantial U.S. force is expected to move south to oversee security in the region, 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.

As Britain withdraws forces from Iraq, it is expected to focus on its role in Afghanistan, where the conflict has worsened, with the Taliban and other militant groups stepping up bomb attacks and ambushes.

Britain has said it will immediately transfer helicopters from Iraq to Afghanistan, helping to improve the ability to transport its 8,300 troops based there around the battlefield, but there are no plans to increase troop numbers at this stage.

British defense sources say it has become almost impossible to sustain military operations in two theaters, with the relatively small army severely overstretched.