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 yesterday.
“By the end of May, or earlier, the mission will be completed,” Brown said at a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, adding that the troops would go home over the following two months.
Underscoring the still fragile state of security despite an overall decline in violence, at least eight people were killed when a car bomb exploded outside a traffic police post in Baghdad, officials said.
Britain has around 4,100 troops in Iraq, based at Basra airport.
“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 Maliki said in a joint statement.
The timetable is in line with a bill approved by the Iraqi Cabinet calling for all foreign troops except for US forces 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 June 30 and from the entire country by the end of 2011.
Brown was on his fourth visit to Iraq since he took office in June last year, hot on the heels of a farewell trip by US President George W. Bush that was marked by Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi hurling his shoes at Bush. To avoid a repeat of the shoe drama, tight security measures were introduced at yesterday’s press conference.
Meanwhile, al-Zeidi appeared before a judge yesterday but in his jail cell, his brother said, alleging he must have been too seriously injured to appear in court.
Al-Zeidi is being held for allegedly insulting a foreign leader. About 1,500 demonstrators took to the streets in the Baghdad Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah yesterday to demand his release.
The shoe-throwing incident has already inspired a spate of Internet games where the players hurl footwear at moving targets of Bush.
The games range from animations to cut-up footage of the now-infamous news briefing.