Iraq's past and future: as troops leave, a deal for 15 new oil wells

US combat forces pull out on day oil drilling contracts are finalised.

BAGHDAD // Seven-and-a-half years after a US led invasion force crossed the border from Kuwait, the final combat brigade left Iraq yesterday in a move described as "historic" by American officials. The last soldiers from the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, crossed back into Kuwait shortly before 4am local time. Combat operations will not be technically declared over until the end of August but, for all intents and purposes, the US army has ceased the military offensive that began in the spring of 2003.

And on the day that US combat soldiers were consigned to Iraq's past, there was a hopeful pointer as to the country's future. Iraqi officials announced international oilfield service companies are finalising contracts to work on the giant Majnoon field in Basra province in the southeast. The deals will involve drilling 15 wells over the next two years, to increase the field's capacity from its current level of under 45,000 barrels a day to 1.8 million.

The Majnoon field, one of the world's biggest, has reserves estimated at 12.6 billion barrels. Last year Royal Dutch Shell and Petronas of Malaysia won a 20-year contract to develop it. As the oil deals were announced, the US said that while its fighting role was over, its commitment to Iraq was not. US forces will work in a training and advisory role to the Iraqi armed forces, with a 50,000 strong complement of American troops due to remain in the country until the start of 2012, the final withdrawal date.

American soldiers are still taking part in joint patrols with Kurdish and Iraqi troops along the so-called trigger line, the frontier along a swath of disputed territory in northern Iraq, and American Special Forces units continue to operate in the country. "We are ending the war ? but we are not ending our work in Iraq," the US State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said. "We have a long-term commitment to Iraq."

The US-led invasion came at an untold human and material cost to Iraqis. The number of civilian casualties alone from the war is disputed, but according to the Iraqi Body Count website, more than 106,000 have been killed, excluding soldiers and police. Mr Crowley also talked of the "high expense" of the conflict to the US. At the war's peak, the Americans were spending between $10 billion (Dh37bn) and $12 billion a month on military operations in Iraq. To date 4,419 US service personnel have lost their lives in the campaign, according to official figures. The most recent fatality happened on Sunday when a US soldier was killed in an attack on his patrol in Baquba.

"We've invested heavily in Iraq and have to do everything we can to preserve that investment, to integrate Iraq along with the neighbourhood into a much more peaceful situation that serves their interests as well as ours," Mr Crowley said. News of yesterday's withdrawal evoked mixed reactions among Iraqis, if anything underlining the country's divisions and the concerns many have about what the future will bring.

"Al Qa'eda is today congratulating itself on forcing the Americans out," said Ali al Sherjeri, a leader in the US allied Tribal Awakening movement. "I don't see how the Americans can say they have pulled out with victory, or that they are pulling out responsibly, it looks like a retreat to me. "They are just handing all of the problems over to us, we don't even have a government." Iraqis were not expecting to hear of the combat troops' withdrawal until the end of the month. That the announcement came 12 days ahead of schedule sparked charges that the American army had crept out early to avoid attacks from militants as they left. While US combat units are now out of the fight, Iraq's security services remain at war with a persistent insurgency that has repeatedly proven its abilities to strike even at the heart of heavily defended Baghdad. The Baghdad government has been trying to recruit more troops to plug the gap left by the US withdrawal, and it was at a military recruitment centre on Tuesday that a suicide bomber killed 61 would-be soldiers. Since the beginning of this week, eight members of Iraq's army and police have been killed in various other attacks, and another six wounded. Violence has steadily risen since the March 7 elections and, although it remains far below the levels it hit in 2007 and 2008, hundreds of civilians and soldiers continue to die each month. With 535 people killed, July was the deadliest month in Iraq for two years, government figures showed. Both the Iraqi and US authorities remain positive about the troop withdrawal and the capabilities of Iraq's forces to take control, despite a plethora of security and political complications,including Baghdad's failure to agree on a new administration more than five months after elections were held. In ending its combat role, the US government is shifting over to a massive civilian programme here. Two new fortified diplomatic outposts, each costing $100 million, are to be established in Kirkuk and Mosul, key areas of tension between Arabs and Kurds. Consulates will also be opened in the southern port city of Basra, and in Erbil, in northern Iraq. Rather than being protected by the US army, State Department staff will be guarded by some 7,000 private contractors equipped with military hardware, including a fleet of mine resistant MRAP vehicles, helicopters and armoured cars. The total start up costs of the new consulates and outposts are expected to be in the region of $1bn. The Obama administration has made it a central policy to withdraw all of its troops by the end of 2011, but the defence secretary Robert Gates recently said that position could be re-evaluated, if the Iraqi government so requested. Some US military officers are likely to remain in the country after 2012 either way, if only to help supervise and maintain the millions of dollars of US military equipment, including tanks, that the Iraqi authorities have purchased. There are currently 56,000 US soldiers in Iraq, but Washington says it is on course to reduce that number to 50,000 by the end of August.