British Army wanted in town where bombing and murder are the norm

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The Independent Online

British troops may be deployed to one of the most violent flashpoints in Iraq in an operation to help United States troops poised for an assault on the rebel stronghold of Fallujah.

British troops may be deployed to one of the most violent flashpoints in Iraq in an operation to help United States troops poised for an assault on the rebel stronghold of Fallujah.

Soldiers from the Black Watch may be deployed to Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad, an area that has seen militants mount sustained attacks on US and Iraqi government forces, as well as the kidnap and murder of foreigners and Iraqis. The Americans claim to have "pacified" the area in a military operation after it passed into the hands of insurgents for months. But it remains highly volatile.

Meanwhile, the Ramadan offensive threatened by the insurgents continued last night in Baghdad as a massive bomb exploded in Jadiriyah, supposedly one of the city's safest districts, killing seven people and injuring at least 25 others.

Iskandariyah and the nearby town of Latifiyah are important strategically as a "feeder route" to Fallujah, and US commanders are said to want the British battalion to provide support ­ backfill, in military jargon ­ for US troops heading to Fallujah to reinforce the 1,200 troops already based there.

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, will brief MPs today on proposals to deploy British troops to the dangerous American-held territory around Baghdad. But in a "holding statement" he will rule out sending forces into Baghdad or Fallujah and will insist any decision to move troops from the British area of operations in southern Iraq will be taken by commanders on the ground.

The move came as Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, warned in an interview with ITV that the war in Iraq had failed to make the world a safer place.

What remains unclear is the timing of the main US assault on Fallujah. No indication has been given on when it will take place. A British official said the attack might not wait until the American presidential election on 2 November. Mr Annan said: "The arguments about Iraq have been well rehearsed already in the campaign. We do not think it will play any significant part on a decision on Fallujah."

Military sources have said that the US forces will need to boost their numbers significantly before attacking the town where more than 3,000 heavily armed insurgents are said to be ensconced. US commanders are said to be determined to avoid a repetition of last April's debacle in which an offensive on Fallujah was abandoned after several weeks of clashes and a bloody siege, handing the militants a propaganda victory.

In Fallujah yesterday, for the first time in the current offensive, US AC-130 gunships, with devastating firepower, flew over the town, although no details have been released on whether they had taken part in attacks. Residents fleeing clashes on the ground described widespread destruction to buildings as well as US military vehicles on fire.

About five people were killed in overnight air strikes by US warplanes. But hospitals could not verify casualty numbers during the day because ambulances were caught in crossfire.

The scale and intensity of US attacks on Fallujah, where the Jordanian-born militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and his Tawhid and Jihad group, is supposed to have his headquarters, has grown by the day.

Religious leaders in Fallujah made yesterday a last-ditch offer to hold peace talks with the Iraqi interim government. Earlier talks had broken off, but the blunt response was that they must hand over Zarqawi and other militants or face an attack.

Abdul Hamid Jadou, one of the Fallujah negotiators, said: "We are still ready to go back to the talks and open new channels of dialogue." But he added that "this government is siding with the Americans in bombing the innocent people who are fasting on Ramadan". American and British officials made it clear they did not believethe negotiatorshad enough influence to deliver a meaningful deal.

Insurgents killed nine Iraqi policemen in an ambush earlier yesterday. Three people also died when mortar rounds were fired at a stadium in Baghdad's Sadr City where members of Muqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army were handing over arms under a peace deal. Many claimed US forces were responsible for the mortar attack afterwards.

Captain Brian O'Malley of the 1st Cavalry Division said: "Our expectations had been that thousands of weapons would be handed in. We haven't seen that many." He said many of the surrendered weapons were old and broken.

A statement on an Islamist website yesterday said that Zarqawi has declared his group a part of al-Qa'ida. The statement said Zarqawi had been in contact with Osama bin Laden eight months ago and "viewpoints were exchanged" before the dialogue was interrupted. Yesterday's statement said: "You [Bin Laden] are the best leader for Islam's armies against all infidels and apostates."

Britain's ambassador to Iraq, Edward Chaplin, made an appeal in Arabic yesterday to the killers of Kenneth Bigley, who was murdered 11 days ago, to return his body and finally allow his family to lay him to rest.

DEPLOYMENT OF TROOPS BY REGION

BAGHDAD: 30,000 foreign soldiers, mostly US; 32 Estonians at Abu Ghraib jail. Likely location for 650 troops from the Britain's Black Watch regiment.

MULTINATIONAL BRIGADE NORTH (inc Mosul, Arbil): Around 11,500 Iraqi forces; 8,500 mostly US troops (Third Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division); South Korea (2,800).

NORTH-CENTRAL AREA: US 1st Infantry; Georgia (150); Latvia (40); Moldova (30); Macedonia (30).

WESTERN AREA (inc Fallujah): US 1st Marine Division; Azerbaijan (150); Tonga (45).

CENTRE-SOUTH (inc Najaf):

Poland (2,350); Ukraine (1,550); Thailand (450); Bulgaria (420); Hungary (290); Romania (200); Mongolia (140); Latvia (110); Slovakia (110); Lithuania (50).

SOUTH-EAST (inc Basra): UK (8,300, mainly 1st Mechanised Brigade); Italy (2,800); Netherlands (1,300); Japan (500); Romania (500); Denmark (400); Portugal (124); Czech Rep (90); Lithuania (60); NZ (60).

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