Wed, May 19, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Britain to dispatch up to 3,000 more troops

AFP , LONDON

Britain will announce next week that it is sending up to 3,000 more troops to Iraq in an attempt to restore order before next month's handover of power to an interim Iraqi government, The Times reported yesterday.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair will argue that the reinforcements are part of an exit strategy, which focuses on accelerating the training of Iraqi military to take over on June 30, the newspaper said.

"The force of Royal Marines and an armored infantry battle group will be sent to an area of volatile southern Iraq recently vacated by Spanish troops," it said.

The area includes the holy city of Najaf, where radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has been holed up for more than a month with his militia in defiance of US-led forces.

The Times said armed forces' chiefs would finalize reinforcement plans this week, with an announcement to follow next week. Britain currently has 7,900 troops occupying southern Iraq, with headquarters in Basra.

Blair, speaking on Monday in Ankara, said British troops would stay in Iraq until "the job is done" and insisted he would not bow to criticism over the US-led coalition's handling of the situation there.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, when asked about Iraq reinforcements in a BBC interview yesterday, responded with the stock government reply.

"There have been discussions about additional troop numbers," he said.

"When and if a final decision is made in respect to further troop numbers, then the secretary of state for defense, Geoff Hoon, will make that announcement to the House of Commons," he said.

The Pentagon announced on Monday that the US will withdraw some 3,600 troops from South Korea for up to a year's combat duty in Iraq, the first reduction in US force levels on the Korean peninsula since the early 1990s.

The worsening security situation in Iraq was highlighted on Monday by the the death of the head of the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, Ezzedine Salim, in a Baghdad car bomb suicide attack.

The Times' report was the third so far this month about an impending rise in British troop numbers.

On May 6, the Sun newspaper said that Britain would send 800 Royal Marine commandos, among other troops, back to Iraq to replace Spanish forces being withdrawn from the country.

It said that 40 commandos of the Royal Marines, one of the British units that took part in the US-led invasion of Iraq in March last year, would spearhead reinforcements that will also include a unit of the elite Special Boat Service.

It added that the troops would be tasked with regaining control of the city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, where militia loyal to the wanted Shiite cleric, Sadr, have clashed with coalition forces.

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