05/05/2009 04:06 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The uneasy retreat from Iraq

Gordon Brown's description of Iraq as a success story is evidence of the huge gap between rhetoric and reality

Gordon Brown bookended his predecessor's war of choice, by explaining that Britain and Iraq were now entering a "long-term partnership of equals". However it was a US flag that replaced the union flag at Basra airport, a reminder that despite improvements in the security situation the real exit of foreign forces from Iraq is by no means imminent.

Yet with both George Bush and Blair gone, the former replaced by a leader who made much of his position against the Iraq war, many would be forgiven for thinking that the war in Iraq is over.

Certainly coverage of events in the country is lower than ever. According to the Pew Research Centre, Iraq accounts for only 2% of US media coverage, down from 16% in 2007. Declining interest and exorbitant security costs make Iraq a far from attractive country to base large media offices. Increasingly, journalists are returning only for anniversaries or political milestones such as the British departure, with improved security allowing for the endlessly repeated maxim: "A year ago I could have never walked along this street, but look at me doing it now."

Brown, struggling with a terrible week of politics, went so far to describe the Iraq of today as "a success story", which makes you wonder how low the bar for success in the country currently is. Brown's own Foreign Office reminds us that "the situation remains highly dangerous with a continuing high threat of terrorism throughout the country ... Even those working with dedicated protection teams should exercise extreme caution."

Indeed, McClatchy Newspapers, one of the few media outlets to keep its own account of weekly deaths in Iraq, reported this week that April was the most violent month in over a year with more than 200 Iraqis killed by a series of bomb attacks largely targeting densely packed Shia civilian areas.

Understanding Iraq is an eternal battle between rhetoric and reality. The formal handover of British responsibility is yet another chimera. In 2004 the much touted "handover of sovereignty" by Paul Bremer of the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi government was in reality a handover to the largest US embassy in the world. Indeed the Iraqi government is still trying to "prove" real sovereignty and a legitimate effective control of its territory; the rise of the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is a symptom of the concentration of what reconstructed power there is at the centre of the state.

The real and effective end of the UK mission in Iraq came when British forces left Basra city at night in September 2007. They then bunkered down at the airport on a holding pattern until the political space arrived for them to make good this week's real departure.

Meanwhile the battle for the history of the British involvement in Iraq has been in full swing. Retired US general and key "surge" architect Jack Keane lambasted the 2007 British retreat from Basra city for turning it "into a city of gangland violence". Many of the improvements in Basra are linked to Maliki's Operation Charge of the Knights in March 2008, an effective clampdown against the militias and a campaign over which the British were heavily criticised for their reluctance to get involved. The British claim that they stood back and allowed an Iraqi military they helped form and train do what is was supposed to do. Yet despite the admirable role of individuals such as Colonel Richard Iron, it was US military logistics and Iranian diplomacy that provided the real powerbrokers to the fighting's conclusion.

Behind the pomp and ceremony of brass bands and backslapping congratulations is a reality of an under-resourced military retreating from a politically unpopular war. Afghanistan will now become the sole crucible for British attempts to restore credibility to its major foreign policy adventures.

This does not mean that Iraq is no longer an issue of political contention. An upsurge in violence and talk of regression and slippage may be blamed on Barack Obama, who has accelerated US withdrawal on taking office. Despite recent glitches in the US-Iraqi State of Forces Agreement, US combat troops are scheduled to be out of Iraqi urban areas in two months time. A delay in this, forced by the need to prevent any possible retaliation against Sunni targets, will place Obama in a tight spot. Failures in Afghanistan have been placed at the door of neglect in the face of operations in Iraq; the reverse scenario could well be the narrative of the near future.