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AFTER 38 YEARS, MISSION IN NORTHERN IRELAND ENDS

The British army marked a milestone of peacemaking Tuesday as it formally ended its 38-year mission to bolster security in Northern Ireland.

The military's longest-running operation officially ended at midnight. But the symbolic moment came months after the reality - no British troops have been on patrol on Belfast streets for two years.

As of today, all 5,000 soldiers remaining in this long-disputed corner of the United Kingdom will be committed to training for operations in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere overseas.

Analysts and ex-soldiers are debating whether British security forces defeated the outlawed Irish Republican Army, which waged a 1970-1997 campaign to overthrow Northern Ireland by force. But all sides agree the IRA's 2005 decision to renounce violence and disarm has permitted British soldiers to beat their own retreat.

"We don't need them anymore," said Chief Constable Hugh Orde, commander of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which increasingly can operate in most of the IRA's Roman Catholic power bases. For decades, police patrols in these areas required backup from troops.

The British army once had 106 bases and 27,000 troops in Northern Ireland, and had 44 bases here only two years ago. It now has fewer than 20 bases and expects to have just 10 by April.

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