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British Troops Leave Iraq As Mandate Ends

Britain lost 179 soldiers in the invasion and occupation, including those killed by hostile forces, in accidents, or from illness.
(RFE/RL) -- There are no longer any British troops in Iraq, as the mandate for their presence has officially expired.

That is in line with the withdrawal of British soldiers from the country that began at the end of April, when Britain ended combat operations in the country.

But even the handful of British troops -- some 150 -- who were to remain behind to train the Iraqi Navy -- has had to leave the country temporarily and are now based in Kuwait.

They now are waiting for the Iraqi parliament to approve a new agreement that will allow them to work following the current mandate's end.

The new agreement, already signed by Iraqi and British government officials, awaits a final reading and expected passage in the Iraqi parliament in the coming weeks.

All this makes the official end to Britain's military role in Iraq a rather anticlimactic moment, with no parades and no final ceremonies. Nonetheless, it does mark a milestone in both British and Iraqi history.

Some 45,000 British troops were in the coalition force assembled to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. After the war, the British remained responsible for security in much of the south of the country, particularly around Iraq's second-largest city and key port, Basra.

The British lost 179 soldiers in the invasion and occupation, including those killed by hostile forces, in accidents, or from illness.

Public Inquiry

But if London's mission in Iraq is now officially over, Britain continues to be sharply divided over its invasion and occupation of the country.

The divisions take the form of a formal public inquiry launched on July 30 into the justifications for Britain's action and sacrifices. Opponents of Britain's involvement in Iraq had called for years for such an inquiry, which was finally initiated with the government's appointing of a five-member panel in June.

The chairman of the inquiry panel, John Chilcot, vowed on July 30 that the hearings would be televised or made available online whenever possible, given national security considerations.

"The inquiry is not a court of law and nobody is on trial, but I want to make one thing absolutely clear: This committee will not shy away from making criticisms," Chilcot said.

"If we find that mistakes were made, that there were issues which could have been dealt with better, we will say so frankly. We are all committed to insuring that our proceedings are as open as possible, because we recognize that is one of the ways in which the public can have confidence in the integrity and independence of the inquiry process."

The vow for frankness and openness reflects the high emotions surrounding the debate in Britain.

Opponents of the Iraq war charge former Prime Minister Tony Blair with pushing the country into the U.S.-led coalition without sufficient justification.

They particularly question the accuracy of intelligence information regarding Saddam Hussein's efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and how it was presented to the public in the run-up to the invasion.

Chilcot says he hopes his panel can publish a report within a year but says the magnitude of the task could push the end date into 2011.

The inquiry is to hear from senior former officials, including Blair, as well as from more junior officials who will be asked to speak about how their managers and leaders acted. The panel will also take testimony from families of some of the British soldiers who died in Iraq.

The panel's inquiry -- which could easily spark a larger discussion of Britain's foreign-policy goals in the 21st century -- comes as Britain steps up its involvement in Afghanistan. Its conclusions could thus influence London's future thinking about that mission as well.

Earlier this week, an opinion poll indicated that more than half of Britons think military forces in Afghanistan cannot win and that troops should be withdrawn immediately.

The end to Britain's mission in Iraq leaves only the United States with combat troops there. Earlier this year, another major coalition partner, Australia, also officially ended its military presence in the country.

Washington has some 130,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq and hopes to withdraw all its combat forces by the end of 2011.

compiled from news agency material