Britain Says Its Iraq Mission Will End May 31 On a deadly day in Iraq, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown says most British military personnel will leave the country by the end of June.
NPR logo Britain Says Its Iraq Mission Will End May 31

Britain Says Its Iraq Mission Will End May 31

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced Wednesday that British troops will halt military operations in Iraq on May 31, with most soldiers leaving the country by the end of June.

Brown and al-Maliki made the announcement after a meeting in Baghdad. British officials had previously said the 4,100 soldiers based near the southern city of Basra would leave by mid-summer.

"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," Brown and al-Maliki said in a joint statement.

Britain once had 45,000 troops in Iraq, but the government's support for the U.S.-led war was very unpopular at home. British officials said they would move helicopters from their base in Iraq to Afghanistan, but they have no plans to increase troop numbers there.

Al-Maliki thanked British troops for their efforts to rid the country of terrorists and build a basis for democracy.

"We thank (British troops) for the efforts they have made for getting rid of dictatorship and terrorism. They have made a lot of sacrifices," al-Maliki said.

The British Defense Ministry said U.S. troops will take over the British base in Basra.

Despite general improvement in security, the announcement came on a deadly day in Iraq. A double bombing in eastern Baghdad killed at least 18 people and wounded 52 others, Iraqi police said.

The first blast took place Wednesday morning near the traffic police headquarters in the Nahda neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Moments later, a roadside bomb went off, police said.

The U.S. military says a roadside bomb exploded near an American patrol hours earlier in the same area but that there were no deaths or injuries.

The 'Coalition Of The Willing' Winds Down In Iraq

Maj. Gen. Michael Ferriter (right) presents a plaque to Japanese Lt. Col. Takernori Kato at a ceremony ending Japan's troop deployment in Iraq. Spc. Eric Glassey/U.S. Army hide caption

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Spc. Eric Glassey/U.S. Army

Countries scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of the year:

  • Ukraine
  • Czech Republic
  • Bulgaria
  • Lithuania
  • Denmark
  • Albania
  • Moldova

Countries scheduled to remain:

  • U.S.
  • Britain
  • Australia
  • El Salvador
  • Estonia
  • Romania

Soldiers with the 1st Azerbaijani Peacekeeping Company at a farewell ceremony at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on Dec. 3. The unit guarded an Iraqi hydroelectric dam. Gunnery Sgt. Jason Bortz/U.S. Marine Corps hide caption

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Gunnery Sgt. Jason Bortz/U.S. Marine Corps

Most of the last members of the "Coalition of the Willing" are leaving Iraq as the year ends and, with them, the United Nations mandate authorizing their presence.

Nearly every day, with an exchange of salutes, speeches and commemorative plaques, another small contingent of troops says goodbye to the overwhelmingly American force that they've been part of.

In recent days, soldiers from Japan, Tonga and Bosnia have departed from U.S. bases where they've performed guard duty, training and humanitarian missions for much of the past five years. The coalition, which the Bush administration once claimed to number 49 countries, has now dwindled to fewer than a dozen. Even at its most robust, the coalition was always a target for critics, who pointed out that most of its members were tokens in a force that was more than 95 percent American and British.

Only Skeleton Crews Remain

In many cases, the nations that are now officially leaving had already pulled out the bulk of their troops over the past several years.

Japan's commitment to the coalition ended on Dec. 6 with a ceremony marking the withdrawal of the last of its air force personnel. Japan initially provided more than 600 soldiers for reconstruction and humanitarian work in southern Iraq, but withdrew most of them in the summer of 2006 after it was announced that Iraqi troops would take over security in their area.

Some Japanese pilots and ground teams stayed on until now to fly C-130 transport planes that ferried supplies and personnel between Baghdad and southern Iraq.

The Pacific Island nation of Tonga was typical of the smaller nations in the coalition. Ever since June of 2004, it has kept a force of around 50 of its marines in Iraq, with many of them serving alongside U.S. Marines in the violent Anbar province. As troops were rotated in and out, the number of Tongans who served in Iraq at one time or another makes up a significant chunk of the country's 450-member armed force.

Over the past year, the Tongan marines were assigned to guard part of the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad. Their farewell ceremony on Dec. 4 included a Tongan war chant that boomed through one of the palaces of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

Memorable as that was, it was just one in a string of departures, following the Azerbaijan contingent the day before, and the South Koreans a few days before that. The schedule calls for a half-dozen more units to leave by Dec. 18: the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Denmark, Albania and Moldova.

Iraqi officials say they will allow only six countries to have troops remaining in Iraq after the end of this year. The U.S. will remain under the terms of a newly ratified agreement with the Iraqi government. Britain, Australia, El Salvador, Estonia and Romania will keep a total of about 5,500 troops in Iraq, training the Iraqi military and conducting humanitarian aid missions.

Even those nations remaining are looking to reduce the size of their commitments. The U.S. has agreed to remove all combat troops by the end of 2011. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced Wednesday it will end it's mission in Iraq by May 31. He said draw down the country's 4,100-member force will be complete by the end of July.

Many Were Willing, But Not Able

The significance of the coalition has been questioned since its beginning, as President Bush sought to bring together a group of countries that would demonstrate international support for the invasion of Iraq. Although the White House said before the invasion in March of 2003 that dozens of countries were "publicly committed to the coalition," critics noted that many of them had little to contribute and were deeply beholden to the U.S.

Six had no militaries, and many others were only able to send token numbers of troops. Some of those countries were receiving foreign aid from the U.S., or were seeking American support for joining NATO. Some, such as the tiny Pacific nations of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau, are former U.S. trust territories that are dependent on American aid and defense.

Academic researchers say the Bush administration apparently tried to put a better face on the coalition by altering lists of coalition members that were posted before the invasion, but failing to show that the documents had been modified.

Researchers Scott Althaus and Kalev Leetaru of the University of Illinois say that a White House document showed there were 45 members of the coalition before the invasion. They say that and other lists were later revised to boost the number of nations to 49, but that there was no notice of the change, so the revised lists appeared to be originals.

Althaus and Leetaru's report notes that the list of coalition members was important, because it bolstered the Bush administration's argument for the invasion.

"It suggested that there were numerous other nations supporting the American military action; not the U.S. acting alone, but a coalition of nations from around the globe forming together to defeat an enemy purported to threaten the world."