British forces are being withheld from Iraq as the government fears casualties during a general election period. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced in December that hundreds of Briish troops would be sent to Iraq in January to help in the fight against ISIS, but the Ministry of Defence admitted yesterday that that was no longer the case.
Whitehall sources have told the Daily Mail: “Downing Street does not want any news of UK troops heading for Iraq overshadowing the election campaign. They are now looking at delaying the training announced by Michael Fallon.”
American troops are already in Iraq, training members of the Iraqi security forces, including 300 marines who are working with members of the Iraqi 7th Division at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar Province, and a further 170 soldiers serving with the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division who are training four battalions of Iraqi forces in Taji, north of Baghdad.
Two US personnel have already lost their lives in Iraqi missions: 21-year-old Marine Corporal Jordan L Spears who was lost at sea, and, days later, 19 year old Lance Corporal Sean P Neal, who died in a ‘non-combat related incident’ in Baghdad. His death is the first to be described as that of an American service member killed in the fight against Islamic State.
It is understood that Downing Street’s reconsideration of plans to deploy troops followed the US reports on the deaths of their personnel. A source said: “The Conservatives’ concern about Iraq and the potential for soldiers being killed has been reinforced by the US report which was raised at a recent meeting.”
In recent weeks ISIS fighters have begun laying IEDs to kill Iraqi forces, forced to change tactics after airstrikes killed their fighters and destroyed their vehicles. Consequently, the Iraqi government asked British forces for their expertise in this area, honed by fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Iraqi forces are also in need of more generalised training following their defeat at the hands of ISIS over the summer.
In December Michael Fallon announced: “‘Our role now, apart from the air strikes, is increasingly going to be on training.
“Particularly, a key skill we are going to be helping with its counter-IED, particularly vehicle explosive devices which the Iraqi army hasn’t come across for some time, they don’t know how to handle, they haven’t got the kit or the bomb disposal people to deal with it.
“So the training we are going to be offering in January will be in infantry skills and some of the basics but particularly on how you deal with IEDs, given all the lessons we have learnt from Afghanistan.”
The mission would have been the first significant deployment of ground troops since British forces withdrew from Iraq three years ago. US forces were to spearhead the training initiative, contributing 3,500 troops, whilst a further 1,500 troops from Britain, France, Australia and Germany were to assist.
However, the Ministry of Defence is now unable to provide a firm timetable for deployment. A ministry spokesman has said that the government remains fully committed to playing an “active role” in the training of Kurdish and Iraqi troops, adding “The National Security Council agreed that we should do further work to scope the additional assistance we could offer to the Iraqi military.
“As the Defence Secretary has made clear, details have not been finalised. At this stage no firm decisions have been made.”