British troops may replace Italians in Iraq

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Indy Politics

Britain could send more troops to Iraq to fill the gap left by the proposed withdrawal of Italian soldiers, General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army, has said.

Britain could send more troops to Iraq to fill the gap left by the proposed withdrawal of Italian soldiers, General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the Army, has said.

The news of the possible deployment comes as protesters gather for what is expected to be a well-attended march today against the continuing presence of British troops on the anniversary of the invasion.

British troops have already had to step in to take over from the 1,500-strong Dutch contingent as the "coalition of the willing" continues to evaporate in the face of continuing violence in Iraq and protests at home.

Poland, Ukraine and Portugal are all in the process of pulling back their forces, and Silvio Berlusconi has announced the 3,200 Italian soldiers will begin withdrawing in September.

General Jackson said yesterday that no decision has been made on further British deployment, but he added: "Of course there is a capacity to do more if that is the decision ...There seems to be, shall we say, a little confusion precisely as to the Italian contingent and that will be clarified in due course."

The Italian force, a combination of troops and carabinieri, are based at Nasiriyah, in British-controlled southern Iraq, as were the Dutch. Senior US officers are said to feel that it will be "logical" for Britain to take over their role.

Charles Heyman, a senior analyst with the defence information group, Jane's, said: "It's going to be a big hole. I think it's almost impossible for the Americans to produce another 3,000 extra troops. We are probably going to be asked to fill the gap ... people will be looking around for other coalition contingents to help out and it doesn't look as though they are going to find much success in finding anybody else who's going to send 3,000 troops to Iraq."

A defence official said yesterday: "We haven't got a huge amount of commitment elsewhere and there will not be any major logistical problem in deploying more to Iraq. The main problem, of course, is political."

Downing Street claimed yesterday that Mr Berlusconi's remarks about withdrawal had been misrepresented and Italian troops will not pull out. However, Mr Berlusconi had said that he had already discussed his forces' withdrawal with Tony Blair. "We need to construct a precise exit strategy. It is public opinion in our country which expects this decision," he said.

"We will begin to reduce our contingent in Iraq before the end of the year, in agreement with our allies. The first reduction will start in September."

Britain had planned to cut its troops after the Iraqi elections at the end of January. But 650 soldiers, from the Queen's Dragoon Guards and The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment, had to be sent to replace the Dutch in the province of Muthanna.

The exit strategy said to have been agreed by the US and Britain is based on Iraqi forces taking over the main burden of security, but there are fears not enough progress has been made.

Leading article, page 36

Sue Webster, page 37

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