David Cracknell & Stephen Grey | Bagdad | October 17
The Sunday Times – Tony Blair faces a growing political row over Iraq after it emerged that hundreds of British troops may soon be sent to the Baghdad region to fight under American command.
Senior MPs and military sources warned of the danger of British soldiers being associated with heavy-handed US military tactics in central Iraq and of being drawn deeper into the conflict.
Blair himself risks accusations that he is acting to shore up his ally George W Bush in advance of the US presidential elections on November 2.
The Tories challenged the timing of the planned deployment, saying it looked like “a political gesture”, adding that the concept of peacekeeping was “alien” to the Americans.
British defence sources confirmed yesterday that more than 600 soldiers from the Black Watch regiment could be moved ahead of Iraq’s elections in January. They are likely to be stationed in a combat zone where insurgency is widespread.
They also said there is likely to be significant “reorganisation” of troops across Iraq to protect polling stations and secure orderly elections.
It is feared that the Black Watch, currently stationed in Basra, may have to adopt America’s aggressive rules of engagement – though the Ministry of Defence has denied this would happen – and so draw Britain even more deeply into the worsening conflict in Iraq.
Military sources rejected reports that the soldiers would be sent to Baghdad itself, saying said it was likely troops would be sent just south of the city to reinforce and “back fill” for US Marines who are likely to join a new offensive against the rebel city of Falluja.
One senior US official in Baghdad said the most likely location for the British was a US Marine base in Iskandariya, and the nearby towns of Latifiya and Mahmudiya. “This is a combat zone with a large proportion of the population who actively support the terrorists,” he said. It was Latifya where the British hostage, Kenneth Bigley, is believed to have been held and then executed.
Although America already has about 140,000 troops in Iraq, only a small proportion of those are fighting soldiers. Even a few hundred British infantry would make a significant contribution.
When the US Marines made their failed attempt to capture Falluja in April, they had to leave key areas of the country uncovered, including most of the Syrian border, as they massed troops round the rebel town.
However, Nicholas Soames, the shadow defence secretary, said: “We need to watch the timing of all this and be careful this isn’t just a kind of political gesture to reassure the Americans of Blair’s support for the American elections.”
He added: “The concept of peacekeeping is one alien to our American friends, they don’t use the same tactics as we do, and that’s their business. But we need to be careful that we have a very major say in the plan for this up coming counterinsurgency operation . . . our soldiers, a large number of them in Basra, will be amongst those picking up the bill if it goes wrong.”
Robin Cook, the former foreign secretary, also warned of forcing British soldiers to adopt American tactics: “For a year Britain has been trying in vain to persuade US forces to show the same restraint as our troops, who have won a lot of local goodwill as a result.
“The real risk of sending a British battalion into the US sector is that our troops could become associated in Iraqi minds with US methods. The last time US forces attacked Falluja they left 1,000 civilians dead and uproar across Iraq at their heavy-handed tactics.”
Sir John Walker, a former chief of defence intelligence, said Blair was in danger of creating a British Vietnam if he committed troops to hot spots around Baghdad. “This is the way that mission creep starts in a big way,” he said. “You get deeper and deeper in.”
The Black Watch, used as a reserve force in Basra, was involved in some fierce fighting with the Mahdi army in August in Amara and Basra.
The MoD would say only that negotiations were going on about force deployments. However, Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, is expected to make a statement to the Commons this week.
There was support yesterday for the move from Bruce George, Labour chairman of the Commons defence committee: “I would prefer ideally that we would stay where we are but if it is militarily necessary then I would support this.
“The alternative appears to be to carry on being largely reactive to insurgent attacks, bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. It appears that the US wish to be more proactive and fight them on their adopted home territory in Falluja.”
Copyright 2004 Times Newspapers Ltd.