Opposition to redeployment grows

U.S. asks British troops to take riskier role in Iraq

October 19, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Prime Minister Tony Blair's government faced growing opposition yesterday to a proposal to move British soldiers from the relative safety of southern Iraq to a battle zone near Baghdad so overstretched U.S. troops can mount a sustained attack on insurgent strongholds.

Criticism of the proposal has dominated the front pages of the country's national newspapers the past couple of days and was on vibrant display yesterday in the House of Commons - an indication of deep and growing unhappiness among Britons about how the war is being run. The divide illustrated the fragility of the limited coalition President Bush formed to invade Iraq.

Earlier in the day, Australia publicly declined a request by the United Nations to provide more troops in Iraq in preparation for elections there, and last week the Polish government announced it would begin withdrawing troops in January.

The opposition Conservative Party accused Blair of putting British soldiers in harm's way to help President Bush win re-election. Significant opposition was also coming from the prime minister's Labor Party, which argued the move would further ensnare the country in an unwinnable war.

Mostly, though, the opposition to the troop move seemed to stem from a widespread belief in Britain that the Bush administration has made a mess of Iraq and that moving British troops to areas where they are more likely to fight and kill Iraqis would destroy the good will they have built in southern Iraq.

About 9,000 British troops are stationed in Iraq, in and around the city of Basra. British newspapers reported that the redeployment would involve about 650 troops.

The British press, politicians and military commanders have been critical of what they describe as heavy-handed tactics of the U.S. military, bred from political indecision in Washington about how to handle the insurgency and by strained troop levels in Iraq.

"We need to watch the timing of all this and to be careful that this isn't just being used as a kind of political gesture to reassure the Americans of Prime Minister Blair's support for the American efforts," said Nicholas Soames, the Conservatives' defense spokesman.

He added: "The concept of peacekeeping is one that is alien to our American friends."

Blair has not commented publicly on the proposal, issued by the United States on Oct. 10. But in a sign of how fierce the opposition is, Defense Minister Geoff Hoon was forced to the floor of the House of Commons yesterday to reassure Parliament that the redeployment being considered has nothing to do with politics and that British troops were more than capable of fulfilling the new duties.

Hoon said British military teams were being dispatched to investigate the areas of possible redeployment. He said a final decision on the move should come this week.

Despite the stiff criticism, there seemed little doubt that the redeployment would take place.

"There will be no penalty, but we will have failed in our duty as an ally and as a country that has always closely supported the United States," Hoon told the Commons in response to a question about possible consequences should Blair's government reject the U.S. request.

"We want to make clear that the request is a military request and although it is linked to elections, it is not linked to the U.S. elections," Hoon said. Rather, the request was being considered as a way of ensuring Iraqi elections are held as scheduled, in January, he said.

Exactly where the British troops would be re-deployed was not stated, but Hoon said they would not be sent to Baghdad or Fallujah.

The areas considered most likely were Iskandariyah and the nearby towns of Latifiya and Mahmudiya, which are south of Baghdad, or near Kirkuk and Irbil, farther north. Those places have not been nearly as bloody as Fallujah, but there has been enough violence that U.S. troops have had to remain hunkered down.

Moving the British troops north would free U.S. Marines to join a new offensive against the rebel city of Fallujah.

Bush administration officials and U.S. military commanders have said Fallujah would be retaken from insurgents before the Iraqi elections.

"The problem in the U.K. is a perceptual and political one over how this war has been handled," said Michael Clarke, professor of defense studies and director of the International Policy Institute at King's College.

"The expectation here was that we'd go in for the combat phase, play a role in stabilization and then leave. Now people feel like the situation in Iraq is completely out of hand and that this isn't what they signed up for."

In fact, most Britons were against going to war before Iraq was attacked in March 2003, and every government that agreed to join the coalition did so despite opposition from the vast majorities in their countries.

Combined with Bush's unpopularity in Britain and throughout Europe - and the perception that giving British troops a more visible role so close to the U.S. election would help the president at the polls - the opposition is not surprising.

The Liberal Democrat leader, Charles Kennedy, stood on the floor of the Commons and warned against Britain "allowing itself to be sucked further into the mire in Iraq." He said the request for British troops smelled like a Bush campaign ploy and that as the election approaches, the administration is "looking for some major breakthrough in terms of their Iraq campaign, and they want to divert forces accordingly."

But while Hoon, in an hourlong presentation, was loudly jeered in the raucous tradition of the Commons, a prominent Labor member, Gerald Kauffman, received the largest cheers of the session when he lamented the possibility that British forces "risking their lives will be exploited in a U.S. election."

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