Blair deploys marines as attacks intensify

Click to follow

A force of 800 troops, backed by armour, is being sent to Iraq to counter increasing attacks by insurgents on British forces.

A force of 800 troops, backed by armour, is being sent to Iraq to counter increasing attacks by insurgents on British forces.

Tony Blair delayed giving the go-ahead for a major deployment of up to 3,000 extra troops, with the political unpopularity it is certain to bring, until after the local and European elections on 10 June.

However, The Independent has learnt that the Government announcement yesterday, that 600 members of 40 Commando Royal Marines have been put on stand-by, came after military commanders warned that a decision after 10 June would give them extremely limited time for large scale movement of troops before the handover of power to the Iraqis on 30 June.

The marines have been put on a reduced notice to move, of 10 days. The forces being sent include 600 members of the 1st Battalion The Black Watch with around 50 Warrior armoured vehicles, 170 Royal Engineers, and 50 members of the Royal Military Police. However, at the same time, other troops will be returning, leading to a net increase of 370.

The Black Watch and the Royal Engineers are being sent in direct response to a request by Major General Andrew Stewart, the General Office Commanding British forces in Iraq. The armoured infantry was needed because British soldiers were coming under repeated attacks in the Al Amarah region, north of Basra, from mortars and rockets, and the Engineers are needed to fortify British bases. Although British military commanders were initially opposed to expanding the British area of operation north to Najaf, there now appears to be a change of view. It is felt that taking over from the Americans in the whole of the Shia belt would mean that British forces in the Basra region would not have to suffer the backlash from excesses of American troops in these areas.

Downing Street had denied that the decision on further deployment would be based on political considerations, but cabinet ministers have been warned that the Government's policies on Iraq are proving highly unpopular. Clare Short, the former cabinet minister, told The Independent the decision had been delayed because of fears of a voter backlash. "I think Tony Blair is being reckless in wanting to expand our military role in Iraq," she said. "It is a totally different proposition to reinforcing our troops in the areas where they are currently deployed. Deploying troops in new areas will bring more danger to troops."

Gerald Howarth, the shadow armed forces minister, said: "It is perfectly clear that the Defence Secretary is putting up a smokescreen for the big deployment which they are planning to announce after the local and European elections.''

Around 600 members of the 1st Battalion The Black Watch, equipped with armoured personnel carriers, are to be sent out, with 170 Royal Engineers, who will build defences against mortar attacks. Two platoons of Royal Military Police are also being sent to replace two platoons whose tour ends in June.

The Royal Marines 40 Commando unit has also been put on short notice to go if the violence flares in the run-up to the hand-over of sovereignty to the interim government on 30 June.

Mr Hoon told MPs: "It remains the case that we, with our coalition partners, are considering the levels and dispositions of forces required in Iraq in the months ahead, to support the sovereign interim government of Iraq. If we judge that further changes to the UK military contribution in Iraq would be appropriate to support this process, we will inform the House at the earliest opportunity."

The Defence Secretary faced angry protests from a string of Labour MPs who warned Mr Hoon he would be "digging a deeper hole'' for Britain with the deployments. Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, said the Government would not allow a Commons vote on the troop deployments "because it would lose''.

The Conservatives, led by Nicholas Soames, the shadow defence secretary, gave broad support, but John Maples, a former Tory minister, warned Mr Hoon he was risking cross-party support by "media manipulation". The Conservatives also warned that the use of the Black Watch, who returned less than a year ago from Iraq, showed "over-stretch'' in the armed forces was becoming critical.

The former SNP leader, Alex Salmond accused Mr Blair of leading the country and its troops into a "morass'' in Iraq. "What we need now is an exit strategy, not a 'dig-a-bigger hole' policy,'' he said.