Troops coming home from Iraq by mid-2009

British troops will exit Iraq by the middle of next year, Gordon Brown has announced in an unexpected visit to Iraq.

The prime minister met with his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad for discussions on British forces currently on overwatch duty in the south of the country.

He announced troop withdrawals would begin from June 2009 with the final exit coming at the end of a two-month window finishing before August.

“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,” a joint statement said.

It is Mr Brown’s fourth visit to Iraq since becoming prime minister last year and comes soon after US president George Bush had a shoe thrown at him by an Iraqi journalist during a press conference.

No such incidents marred today’s event, which concentrated on enduring good relations between Iraq and Britain following the troop withdrawal.

The joint statement added: “The partnership between the two countries will continue to take on new dimensions and will be strengthened through cooperation in all areas due to the prominent position of the UK within the EU and the UN security council.

“This relationship of cooperation and friendship between Iraq and the UK is entering a new era and will yield continuing cooperation that will last for many years to come.”

The Liberal Democrats seized on the announcement to reiterate their calls for an inquiry into why the UK went to war.

“Gordon Brown cannot be allowed to sidestep the massive part he played in signing the cheques for the biggest foreign policy disaster in half a century,” said party leader Nick Clegg.

“There must be a fully independent public inquiry into how this was allowed to happen. The time when Brown has been able to hide behind our troops’ ongoing presence in the country is coming to an end.”

The Tories joined calls for an inquiry, with shadow foreign secretary William Hague dedicating one qustion to it during today’s prime minister’s questions.

His colleague, shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: “Now that we know our troops are being withdrawn there is no excuse not to have the inquiry into the Iraq War that we have demanded.”

There are currently around 4,100 UK service personnel in southern Iraq, compared to 8,000 in Afghanistan.