Britain announced that it will withdraw all if its troops from Iraq by mid-2009. According to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the remaining 4,100 British forces in Iraq will cease operations on May 31, 2009 and begin a withdrawal that will take about two months. At one point, Britain had deployed as many as 45,000 troops to Iraq.
The timing of the announcement coincides with the introduction of a draft Iraqi law requiring all foreign forces other than those of the United States to leave Iraq by July 31, 2009. The remaining non-foreign troops in Iraq consist of the British and smaller numbers of Australians and Romanians, plus a handful from a few other countries. Departure of the non-American forces will not change the situation on the ground.
In the past year, British troops have mostly confined themselves to a garrison at an airfield near al-Basrah. Despite their well-earned reputation as excellent troops, the British have been reluctant to conduct aggressive operations in the southern area that has been their primary responsibility since the invasion in 2003. When Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki deployed Iraqi forces to al-Basrah earlier this year to take down Shi'a militias and criminal gangs threatening to take over the city, it was U.S. troops, not British, who supported the Iraqis with air and ground combat support. I suspect the British forces are responding to direction from London to maintain a low profile until they are withdrawn.
Unlike the United States, whose history with Iraq really only extends to the first Gulf War in 1991 when an American-led coalition expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait, Britain and Iraq have had a rocky relationship that precedes the establishment of Iraq as a modern country. That history may directly impact British conduct in Iraq today.
Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War One, Britain (along with France) was instrumental in the creation of a series of new states, much of it payback for Arab support against the Turks during the war. Our of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire came the new kingdoms of Syria, Iraq and Jordan (originally the Emirate of Transjordan).
The throne in Baghdad was originally intended for 'Abdullah, son of the Sharif of Mecca, the Arab leader whose support for the British was key to victory in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula. When 'Abdullah's brother was expelled by the French from his throne in Damascus, the British moved him to Baghdad, creating Transjordan for 'Abdullah. The inhabitants of the area have not forgotten Britain's creation of artificial countries and importation of outside monarchs.
The Iraqis launched a bitter rebellion against the British in 1920, gaining their independence in 1932. However, during World War II, the British reintroduced forces into Iraq and restored the Hashemite monarchy. British occupation lasted until 1947, and the monarchy remained until a bloody revolution in 1958.
When Britain granted Kuwait its independence in 1962, Iraq threatened to invade and reclaim territory that they believe is rightfully part of Iraq. British forces redeployed to Kuwait and forced the Iraqis to back down. Britain was a key contributor to the coalition that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991.
Most of the Iraqi population (with the likely exception of the Kurds) would like to see all foreign forces leave the country. Most are pragmatic enough to realize that right now it is only the presence of 150,000 American troops that guarantee their security. If they can limit foreign military presence to only one country, so much the better.
The Iraqis will not be saddened to see the British leave, again.