Page last updated at 16:50 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 17:50 UK

RAF ends 19-year mission in Iraq


Families were waiting at RAF Marham in Norfolk to welcome them home

The Royal Air Force has marked the end of nearly 19 years in Iraq as seven aircraft flew personnel back to the UK.

Their families were waiting at RAF Marham in Norfolk to welcome them home.

However there was some anger as Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth, who had been expected to attend the event, did not arrive.

Mr Ainsworth is among those embroiled in the expenses row. Base officials said he had been unable to come because of a debate at Westminster.

Conservative defence spokesman Dr Liam Fox said the minister should have been at the ceremony which marked the end of one of the longest deployments in RAF history.

"It would be interesting to know what has all of a sudden taken priority over welcoming our brave RAF personnel home," he said.

'Lost lives'

"Could it be the disintegrating government?"

But Gp Capt Colin Basnett, the RAF's Tornado Force Commander and Station Commander at Marham, said: "We have got the important people here to mark the homecoming."

And Ann Giles, 38, the wife of returning Tornado pilot Nathan Giles, 37, said: "I suppose ministers are busy at the moment. The important people are here."

More than 100 relatives as well as local children gathered to watch the returning Tornadoes stage a fly-past before landing.

Six Tornado jets and a VC10 transport aircraft flew personnel from Iraq following the end of combat operations.

The RAF has been operating in and over Iraq since 1990 after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait led to the first Gulf War.

Scud missiles

One of the RAF's jobs at the beginning of its deployment to Iraq was to hunt down and destroy the dictator's notorious Scud missiles.

After the end of the conflict the RAF patrolled the northern and southern no-fly zones.

The RAF played a key role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the subsequent six-year British military mission.

Operating from four bases in the Gulf, it has provided support to ground forces and performed an important logistical role.

The RAF said its time in Iraq had helped to stabilise the country. In particular, it said its work to make Basra International Airport "a genuinely international, civilian-run airport" would be "a lasting legacy".

Basra airfield was officially handed over to Iraqi control in January as part of moves to wind down the UK's commitments in the country.

The British military mission in Iraq officially came to a close at the end of April. In May the RAF ensign was lowered at Basra airport.

The ceremony also provided an opportunity to remember the 35 personnel who lost their lives during the deployment.

Tornado crews will be deployed to Afghanistan later this year to support British troops fighting the Taliban.

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