Iraq crisis: Government considers deploying ground forces as conflict worsens

  • @oliver_wright

Britain has had to abandon an overnight aid drop to refugees who have fled from their homes in Northern Iraq over fears they would hit those on the ground.

Downing Street said crowds of thousands of people had congregated on the mountainside area around the town of Sinjar when the RAF C130 tried to airdrop water and essential supplies.

But they were forced to turn back without making the drop because of the pilots' fears that those on the ground could be killed or injured.

A spokesperson for the Prime Minister said they would continue to try and make aid drops, but the incident underlined how difficult the situation was. This morning the Foreign Secretary chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency response committee Cobra.

Government officials are understood to be attempting to draw up plans with the Americans to find a long term solution to the refugee crisis in Northern Iraq.

And for the first time the Government said it might be prepared to send British troops in a humanitarian capacity to help secure the passage of the refugees out of the range of Isis fighters.

“Some sort of force on the ground may well be considered,” said the spokesperson, adding: “The work on this is in the planning stage and then decisions will need to be taken.”

However, recalling Parliament was “not on the cards at this stage” despite calls from some backbenchers for MPs to be brought back.


They also ruled out helping the Americans with air strikes against Isis forces, saying that at the moment the UK was focusing on the humanitarian aid effort. However, providing arms to the Kurdish fighters engaging Isis was not ruled out, though no decisions have been taken.

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell, also a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, said the Government would be "well advised" to seek support from Parliament should it wish its action to go beyond providing humanitarian relief and logistical support.

He said: “The unparalleled barbarity of the jihadists of IS is a sufficient and compelling reason for humanitarian intervention. Short of Kosovo, it is hard to think of any more pressing argument for intervention in recent times. I cannot imagine any opposition within the House of Commons for the action now being taken by the British Government.

"But if it is proposed to any extent to go beyond providing humanitarian relief and logistical support for the United States, the Government would be well advised to seek the endorsement of Parliament."

Tory Conor Burns said MPs should be brought back from their summer break because the Government response to the slaughter of minority Christians and Yazidis was "not strong enough".

Lord Dannatt said the risk of a genocide unfolding meant further help should be considered, arguing that the UK shared “some culpability” for the breakdown in Iraqi society.

“The Peshmurga [armed Kurdish fighters] are willing to stand. They need to be supported with some military hardware, with equipment, possibly some training - probably out of the country," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"But also the air strikes need to be stepped up and they need to be well targeted. It may need people on the ground to make sure the air strikes are accurate and therefore effective."

Asked if that meant UK forces, he said: "The United States in the lead and us in support. We all bear some responsibility. The breakdown in society in Iraq post-2003, we have some culpability for that and so it is difficult for us to say 'not our problem'."

While re-engaging militarily in Iraq could be politically explosive and publicly unpopular, it might still be the right thing to do "in extreme circumstances", he suggested.

"We have got to look carefully just to ensure that there isn't a genocide about to be perpetrated which we know about and while we are watching."

Urging strong action to help the Kurds, London mayor Boris Johnson said "it would be an utter tragedy if we did not do everything in our power to give succour and relief to those who are now facing massacre and persecution, and to help repel the maniacs from one of the few bright spots in the Middle East".

"Yes, we have got it wrong before, and yes, we cannot do everything," he wrote in his column in The Daily Telegraph. "But that doesn't mean we should collapse into passivity and quietism in the face of manifest evil. These people need our help."

Mr Burns, who is leading demands for an emergency Commons debate, said he wanted to see the UK deploy special forces, arm the Kurds and look at offering asylum.

"These are brother and sister Christians, and this is happening to them in no small part because of our record in Iraq. I feel very strongly that the Government's response is not hard enough or strong enough. These people are being beheaded by people from IS, and our only response is to drop some food or water on them."

Mr Cameron and US president Barack Obama discussed the air drops in a phonecall on Saturday, but admitted that a "long-term solution" would be needed to quell the IS advance.

Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdistan regional government's high representative to the UK, appealed for its forces to be armed by the UK and other Western nations.

As Kurdish forces reported that they had retaken control of two towns near the capital Irbil, she said outside troops on the ground were not required "at this stage".

"But beyond that we do need military assistance. We need equipment, we need weaponry, we need sharing of intelligence and we need the air strikes," she told Today.

"We have a very committed and courageous Peshmurga defending Kurdistan and fighting Isis, unlike the Iraqi army which melted away. What we don't have is the weaponry. We can't match what Isis have managed to capture from the Iraqi army."

This came amid renewed political turmoil in Baghdad, where security forces were out in force after under-fire Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki again refused calls to step down and announced that he would take legal action against the country's president for what he called "a clear constitutional violation" by missing a deadline to name a new premier.