British forces 'will be targeted by Iraqi insurgents'

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The Independent Online

Iraqi insurgents are likely to target British troops if they redeploy, trying to drive a wedge between Britain and America and force a British withdrawal, independent military experts warned yesterday.

Iraqi insurgents are likely to target British troops if they redeploy, trying to drive a wedge between Britain and America and force a British withdrawal, independent military experts warned yesterday.

Colonel Christopher Langton said public debate about the possible redeployment of up to 1,000 British soldiers from Basra was "rather unfortunate" and could jeopardise British troops by "highlighting it so graphically". He added: "The insurgency will see this as a weakness they can attack, and the British public can now say 'I told you so'," to the Government. That is the way the insurgents work."

Colonel Langton edited the annual military survey by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), released in London yesterday.

British troops sent north to help the Americans in storming Fallujah will enter a war of attrition far removed from their comparatively stable base in southern Iraq. They are to be deployed to one of the most violent flashpoints in the country.

The Americans want the Black Watch to be deployed in one of a cluster of towns, Iskandariyah, Latifiyah and Mahmudiyah, 20 miles south of Baghdad. The area is a feeder route to Fallujah and strategically important for any offensive on the city. The British troops would play a support role, freeing US combat troops for Fallujah.

People in Fallujah and military sources in Baghdad say militants who escaped the American encirclement of the city have fanned out into the farmlands around Latifiyah, where the British contingent is expected be. The IISS reports: "With Osama bin Laden's public encouragement, up to 1,000 foreign jihadists may have infiltrated Iraq." Christopher Bellamy, professor of military science and doctrine at Cranfield university, said the redeployment "opens up the opportunity for elements of the insurgency to attack the British, knowing there is concern about the deployment".

He said the tactical aim of the insurgency was to drive a wedge between the US and Britain, and added: "We are advertising this in advance. It is like saying, 'Stick the chisel in here'."

Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader, said the reduction in the number of British troops in Basra (to less than 8,000) would make them more vulnerable if there was another flare-up in the region. " If it does start again, there can be no doubt British troops would be at much greater risk," he said.

But Colonel Langton said there would be enough reserve strength left.General Sir Mike Walker, Chief of the Defence Staff, who is was said to have reservations, is expected to make a final recommendation to the Government this week, after a reconnaissance team reports.

An MoD spokesman said the number of troops to be redeployed would probably be larger than the 650-strong the Black Watch, commanded by Lt-Col James Cowan. "If you send a battle group, you add the groups to make it a self-sustaining unit," the spokesman said. "It might be 1,000." That would include engineers to clear explosive devices, Warrior armoured cars and a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks, which pack formidable firepower.

The troops are expected to deploy for up to a month. British military officials say they will be answerable to Maj-Gen Bill Rollo, the British commander of the multinational division in Basra. But in a volatile and fluid situation, the immediate line of command is bound to go through US forces alongside.

British military commanders have twice refused US requests to send troops. A few months after the fall of Baghdad, they refused to deploy 16 Air Assault Brigade to the city, resisting pressure from Downing Street.

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