Robert Fox and Francis Elliott – The Independent June 13, 2004
Tony Blair is preparing to defy voters' protests by sending another 3,000 British troops to Iraq. The announcement, which could come within a fortnight, is being finalised in the Ministry of Defence.
The reinforcement has been scaled up in recent weeks after fierce fighting in the British sector, according to senior military officials.
The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Michael Walker, initially recommended sending an extra enhanced battalion of just 1,000 with the option of sending headquarters staff at a later date.
However, commanders on the ground, including General Andrew Stewart, the British commander of coalition forces in southern Iraq, have asked for a further 2,000 reinforcements as an insurance against further violence after the hand over of power on 30 June.
Senior Labour figures insisted last night that no final recommendations had been made to either Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, or to No 10. They stressed that the UN resolution mandating the handover had helped reduce the need for significant reinforcements from Britain as other coalition countries prepared to shoulder more of the burden.
The difficulty of anticipating security needs in the near future is the real reason for delays, ministers insist, although some concede political calculation made it impossible to announce troop reinforcements ahead of the elections.
Nevertheless, sending any further British soldiers after Cabinet ministers pledged to "learn, listen and reflect" on Labour's poll defeats is likely to enrage Mr Blair's critics.
The importance of the announcement's timing in minimising public opposition is not lost on the Government. "It's a very big call and one that we must make sure we get right," said one senior figure. The extra troops will fly to Iraq as the Government announces deep defence cuts in this year's spending round. The first indications of the MoD's "restructuring" are expected to emerge this week.
It is expected that the RAF will lose 9,000 personnel and concentrate on four major operating bases in the UK. The Navy's surface fleet is likely to be reduced to a total of 26 vessels, with corresponding cuts in personnel. The Army is set to lose four infantry battalions, though this may be conditional on a final peace agreement in Northern Ireland.
The cuts, which are the subject of a fierce row between the MoD and the Treasury, could see £1.2bn a year shaved from the defence budget.
On top of this the bill for operations in Iraq is running at between £200m and £250m a month according to analysts at the Jane's Information Group. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, is insisting that most of this should also come from the Defence budget.
The hints of cuts, perhaps the biggest since the end of the cold war, combined with the need to send more troops to Iraq is causing resentment across the armed forces. "We feel the bond of trust between Government and the forces is being severely stretched," said one officer.
Last updated 15/06/2004