Tue, Oct 19, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Britain denies `political' deployment in Iraq

AP , LONDON

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government yesterday rejected claims from opposition lawmakers that a redeployment of British troops in Iraq would be a political show of support for the administration of US President George W. Bush before presidential elections.

Amid widespread media reports that Britain is considering sending a reserve battalion of some 650 soldiers to Baghdad, some lawmakers believe a redeployment in such a dangerous area would be a political gesture.

Britain's Ministry of Defense has confirmed that US commanders have asked for British troops to be repositioned, but stress that no decision has yet been made. British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon was scheduled to make a statement to the House of Commons on the subject later yesterday.

Blair's close friend and Cabinet colleague Lord Falconer said yesterday a decision would be "entirely not political."

"It is entirely operational," he told BBC radio.

But Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said he could not see why the US military, which has some 130,000 troops in Iraq, might need further support from 650 British soldiers.

"It is hard to see why that constitutes a crucial contribution in the American point of view," he told BBC radio, and said Britain should consider withdrawing from Iraq. "This, far from being an exit stra-tegy, runs the risk of being an ensnarement strategy that drags Britain further into the mire."

Several newspapers reported that Britain is considering sending its reserve force -- the First Battalion Black Watch -- from the southern port city of Basra to Baghdad to fill in for US troops expected to launch a major offensive against insurgents in Fallujah.

One senior military official said that Britain had no plans to do so.

"No plans have been made for the First Battalion Black Watch to go to Baghdad or Fallujah," said Major Charlie Mayo, a British military spokesman in Basra.

A military source said, however, that contingency plans were in place to send British troops to the US-controlled sector and that discussions about coalition troop deployments were ongoing with Iraqi and US officials.

"Are we seriously expected to believe that with 130,000 soldiers in Iraq that the Americans, for military reasons, need 650 Black Watch to protect their backs in Iraq while they storm Fallujah?" Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond told the BBC at the weekend. "I don't want to see a single Black Watch soldier sacrificed and jeopardized for a political gesture from Tony Blair to George W. Bush."

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