Thu, Jul 26, 2007 - Page 6 News List

UK troops on `suicide missions' in Iraq, MPs say

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

British soldiers are going on "nightly suicide missions" in southern Iraq and they are there only at the behest of the US, British Labour Members of Parliament (MP) on the UK House of Commons defense committee told the British government on Tuesday.

In evidence that reflects deepening concern among army commanders, the MPs said they were told during a recent visit to British troops in Basra that the UK's military role in Iraq was over.

They painted a dark picture of the security situation in the city, with Iraqi forces inadequately trained and infiltrated by Shia militia and criminal gangs. The view appeared to be shared yesterday by Minister of State for Defence Bob Ainsworth, also just back from a visit to southern Iraq, and by Brigadier Chris Hughes, the UK Ministry of Defence's senior officer responsible for military commitments.

Kevan Jones, a Labour member of the committee, said British troops were going on "nightly suicide missions," attacked every night as they delivered supplies to the British garrison at the Basra Palace in the center of the city.

He and other Labour MPs said British troops in Basra told them that the only reason they were staying in southern Iraq was "because of our relations with the US".

Jones questioned whether that was "a price worth paying."

Willie Rennie, another Labour member of the committee, suggested British troops were there just because of "American domestic sensibilities."

Ainsworth replied that Britain was a "sovereign nation" but it was also part of a US-led coalition in Iraq.

Washington wants Britain to maintain a substantial military presence in southern Iraq to try and limit domestic pressure for cuts in the number of US troops in Iraq, as well as to protect convoys taking supplies to US troops and help police the border with Iran.

Ainsworth said that neither the Iraqi police nor the Iraqi army were able to guarantee security in the region.

Ninety percent of attacks in Basra were against British troops, the committee heard. The attackers, said Ainsworth, included "patriotic youth," a "huge criminal element," and militias supplied with weapons by Iran.

However, ministers have said British troops will soon hand over the Basra Palace to the Iraqis. That will leave British troops with one base, beside the airport, attacked recently by rockets fired from the Basra suburbs.

The job of British troops will be to "overwatch" Iraq forces, helping them in the event of a crisis.

To do that, Ainsworth said, the number "couldn't get much below" 5,000, the number they will reduce to in the next few months. He would not be drawn on when Britain would pull out of Iraq, saying only that "we are not planning to stay in the numbers we are in southeast Iraq over the long term."

One Labour member of the committee privately expressed concern yesterday that British soldiers could get sucked in to urban guerrilla warfare.

Hughes told the committee it was not appropriate to talk about a "victory" in Iraq.

"I think it's been quite a long time since anyone has talked about victory in Iraq," he said.

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