Baghdad on Tuesday signed military accords with the UK and Australia that give their troops a legal basis to stay in Iraq after the expiry of the UN mandate yesterday, the Iraqi government said.
“With the authority of the government of Iraq given to the defense minister, an agreement was signed with Britain today which will be implemented from the start of the new year until June 30,” Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Mohammed al-Askari said.
“A little while ago an agreement was also signed regarding the withdrawal of the Australian forces in Iraq. It was signed between the Iraqi defense minister and the Australian ambassador,” Askari said.
The long-awaited agreements come just a day ahead of the expiry of the UN mandate, effectively legalizing the presence of non-US foreign troops in the country at the eleventh hour and moving Iraq closer to full sovereignty.
Under the agreement, the UK, which has about 4,100 troops based at Basra airport in southern Iraq, would play only a supportive role in their area.
“British troops will only support, consolidate and develop the Iraqi security forces without having any combat mission. July 31 will be the last day for the withdrawal of the British forces from Iraq,” Askari said.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abdel Qader Mohammed Jassem Obeidi signed the separate accords with British Ambassador Christopher Prentice and Australian Ambassador Robert Tyson.
During a visit to Iraq on Dec. 17, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Iraqi counterpart, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, announced the end of the mission of the British contingent by the end of May, and a total withdrawal by end July.
After British troops leave next year, relations between London and Baghdad would in theory revert to those between any other country.
The same can be said for Sydney, which withdrew a 550-strong battlegroup in June but left a 110-strong security detachment in Baghdad and a group of training and support personnel at various installations.
British troop numbers in the Iraq campaign were the second largest contingent, peaking at 46,000 in March and April 2003 for the invasion, while Australia’s topped out at about 2,000, the third largest deployment in the war.
The end of the UN mandate put in place soon after the March 2003 US-led invasion means Iraq will take greater control of its own security although foreign forces would remain in the country.
“The main difference is that UNAMI [UN Assistance Mission for Iraq] will increasingly and gradually expect Iraqi security forces to provide security, as in any other sovereign country,” Staffan de Mistura, the UNAMI envoy, said earlier this week.
However, deals will also need to be signed by Iraq with Estonia, Romania, El Salvador and NATO, each of whom have small numbers of troops stationed in Iraq.
The US, which has 146,000 soldiers in Iraq, signed in November an agreement with Baghdad that allows its combat forces to remain in the country until the end of 2011.