Baghdad: British forces will wrap up their mission in Iraq in the first half of next year, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said during a surprise trip to Baghdad on Wednesday.
“By the end of May, or earlier, the mission will be completed,” Brown said at a joint press conference with his Iraqi opposite number Nuri al-Maliki, adding that the troops would go home over the following two months.
Brown is on his fourth visit to Iraq since he took office in June last year, hot on the heels of a farewell trip by George W. Bush that was marked by an Iraqi journalist hurling his shoes at the US president.
Underscoring the still fragile state of security despite an overall decline in violence, at least six people were killed when a car bomb exploded outside a traffic police headquarters in Baghdad, an interior ministry official said.
Britain, Washington’s top ally in the US-led invasion of 2003, currently has around 4,100 troops in Iraq, based at Basra airport outside the southern oil port city.
“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,” according to a joint statement by Brown and Maliki.
The timetable is in line with a bill approved by the Iraqi cabinet calling for all foreign troops except for American forces - whose fate is governed by a landmark US-Iraq security pact - to end their missions by the end of May and pull out definitively by the end of July.
Under the so-called Status of Forces Agreement which will govern the presence of US troops when a UN mandate expires at the end of the year, combat forces will withdraw from towns and cities by 30 June and from the entire country by the end of 2011.
Brown said he would make a statement to British parliament on Thursday on troop numbers in Iraq, adding: “The biggest reduction will be at the end part of the period.”
During his visit, Brown is also keen for a progress report on four key objectives due to be completed before the pullout.
These are training the Iraqi army in Basra, transferring Basra airport to civilian use, aiding local economic development and providing support for the January 31 provincial election - the first vote in the country since 2005.
The election is seen as a milestone in devolving power to the country’s feuding communities and has been planned against a backdrop of declining violence.