War against Isis: British troops to return to Iraq to help train Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmarga forces

Isis has changed its tactics in the face of air strikes, no longer moving in conventional formations, but engaging in guerilla warfare, often in urban settings

Two military commanders who prepared the way for the UK’s withdrawal from Basra five years ago will be in charge of British forces going back to Iraq in the war against Isis.

Major General Bob Bruce will be in direct command of UK troops being sent as the campaign against the Islamist extremists move on to a new phase of bloody and attritional combat on the ground. The highly-regarded officer will also be appointed as deputy to the American Lieutenant General James Terry, heading an international force due to rise to 4,500.

In the UK, the British deployment will be overseen by Lieutenant General Tom Beckett, the recently appointed Defence Senior Advisor for the Middle East.

The UK contribution to the international force will number around 200, The Independent understands, with the troops stationed at three bases in Baghdad and one in Erbil in Kurdistan. Their six month tour will start in January.

 

In total America’s allies in the mission against Isis have pledged 1,500 troops to join 3,100 already authorised by US president Barack Obama

The troops will be training Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmarga forces on basic infantry skills, but focusing primarily in countering IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and mine clearance - skills hard learned from fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. But unlike with Afghan forces in Helmand, insist defence officials, mentoring role will not extend to the battlefront.

But the UK is also likely to provide a ‘force protection’ unit, shielding the trainers from attacks by the Islamists. It is likely to be comprised of soldiers from 2nd Battalion, Parachute Regiment.

The plan is due to be presented to the National Security Council tomorrow.

BobBruce-Rex.jpg
Major General Bob Bruce will be in direct command of UK troops (Rex)

Whitehall sources say that the total numbers are unlikely to be increased from 200 this side of the election, with ministers deeply apprehensive about accusations of ‘mission creep’ in Iraq - the scene of the most divisive and controversial war in recent British history.

But even this deployment raises questions. David Cameron had repeatedly stated in the last months, even as the UK joined air strikes against Isis, that he would not put British boots on the ground.

A new post-election government in London is likely to come under pressure from Washington to enlarge its contribution, especially with Britain getting position of deputy commander of the coalition forces.

Announcing the dispatch of more British troops, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was keen to stress the heightened role of the RAF in the course of the air campaign: “a huge number” of strikes has taken place, he pointed out. “Second only to the United States, five times as many as France”.

Faced with air strikes, Isis has changed its tactics, no longer moving in conventional formations using American armoured cars and transporters captured from fleeing Iraqi forces, but guerilla warfare, often in urban settings where Iraqi and Kurdish forces will have to engage and flush them out in street fighting.

As well as extensive service in Afghanistan, Major General Bruce had trained Iraqi soldiers in the past. Asked at the time about the capabilities of the force to which the British were preparing to handover, he reflected: “Is it gold plated? I suspect not. Is it ready and capable? I suspect yes.” The capabilities of the Iraqi forces were subsequently severely weakened by the sectarian policies pursued by premier Nouri al-Maliki.

On the last day of the UK’s combat mission in Iraq, 30th April 2009, then Brigadier Beckett said in Basra: “We have finished our job, we leave knowing we have done our job, and done it well”.

Comments