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As it leaves Iraq, Britain looks warily to Afghanistan

British politicians called for an investigation into intelligence mistakes that led the country into the Iraq war.

By / May 1, 2009

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The British combat mission in Iraq has come to an end after six years in a war that The Guardian called the "most controversial military operation since the Suez crisis more than 50 years ago."

On Thursday, British Forces handed over their airbase to a US brigade, having completed their mission to train two Iraqi Army divisions. Almost all 4,000 British troops will leave Iraq by May 31, with 400 British servicemen remaining in Basra's port city of Umm Qasr to continue training Iraqi forces.

Now that the final chapter of the United Kingdom's time in Iraq has officially come to a close, many British citizens and government officials are reflecting on their involvement in the largely unpopular war and looking warily ahead at the escalating conflict in Afghanistan.

"The road to success has been long and, at times, painful," said Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, according to The Guardian newspaper. "As in any operation of this nature and complexity, things did not always develop as we might have expected. It is therefore critical that we, as an army and within defence as a whole, learn from our experiences in Iraq and implement those lessons for current and future operations."

Despite significant security improvements in Basra, many British newspapers highlighted the fact that, rather than handing the airbase over to Iraqi forces, an American brigade slightly larger than the outgoing British forces will take over the base.

Throughout the war, the UK has struggled with public disdain for the soldiers tasked with fighting the contentious war, as happened in the US during the Vietnam War. For soldiers preparing for a homecoming, the question of how they would be received by the public still loomed large.

"My grandmother took part in marches against the invasion. I had my own strong doubts. But we are soldiers; we follow our orders and all we can do is the best we can and not abuse our power. I think we have done some good in Basra, but I can fully understand the Iraqis not wanting foreign troops in their country," one British officer told The Independent.

The Times of London highlighted British Defense Secretary John Hutton's remarks, delivered at the handover ceremony, about the military's role in helping to pacify the southern region of Iraq. He also acknowledged what is regarded by many analysts as the British military's biggest failing in not stopping militias from infiltrating security forces, which created chaos throughout the city. A joint Iraqi-coalition operation helped return calm to the city last year, but Mr. Hutton said a "proper investigation" would be made into any potential missteps on behalf of the British military.


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