British combat operations in Iraq have finally ended, with a handover to American forces. 179 British personnel have died since the invasion of the country six years ago. During the same period, around 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed (some estimates put the figure much higher, but I'm going with the number supplied by Iraq Body Count).
You can't fail to have noticed that the arguments about whether the war was a good idea in the first place have never really stopped raging. They aren't finished yet either, because the government now seems certain to hold an inquiry into the circumstances of how it ended up going to war. Even if that inquiry is held in secret, the same old arguments, hopefully mixed in with some new information, will be heard again and again.
Leaving all that aside for just now, the other obvious question to ask about Britain's involvement in Iraq over the last six years is - has it been a success? The answer is a qualified no. No because of those 100,000 dead Iraqis, those 179 dead British soldiers, the strengthening of Iran, and because of the huge dent to the moral authority of the US, Britain and the other pro-war nations. On the other hand, and this is where the qualified part comes in, at least Saddam Hussein isn't ruling Iraq anymore.
That's not quite the only good thing to say about Iraq though. Whisper it quietly, but at long last it seems as though much of Iraq is now a pretty safe place to be, certainly the areas in the south which were previously under British control. Suggestions that it's now safer to walk around Basra than London are surely exaggerated, but the country certainly hasn't plunged back into chaos and civil war even though the local Iraqi forces are handling security. It may well be that in decades to come Iraq will indeed become a relatively stable, relatively free, democratic country, in the mould of the Iraq envisaged by Bush and Blair when they decided to invade. That will be a good thing. But the shocking human cost of such an achievement can't be forgotten.