Friday, May 28, 2004

British deployment to Iraq: bad timing

Our favourite defence secretary, Geoff Hoon, surprised everyone recently when he announced a further deployment of British troops to Iraq. It shouldn't have been much of a surprise, because every media source in the kingdom has trailed the deployment of some 3,000 additional soldiers for weeks, and the idea of calling on Britain for more has been current since the Spanish elections. Hoon's surprise was that he didn't announce a mass move. He announced a reinforcement of some 370 soldiers. This was a net figure, and conceals more than it explains. The force going is made up of an armoured infantry battalion - about 600 - and a squadron of engineers, around 170, plus some military police. The explanation of this difference is that these reinforcements are going to replace the last lot of reinforcements, sent out earlier this year as a short-term measure. The Argylls are coming back, and the Black Watch are going out. The difference is that the Watch are armoured, bringing their Warrior fighting vehicles. Now that doesn't sound much like the official task of the reinforcements, which was to speed up efforts to train locally recruited forces.

In fact, the heavy metal is needed because of the frequent fighting around Amara in the north of the British zone. The Argylls, being a light unit, were short on armour, firepower and mobility. Clearly, they are taking no chances on a repeat of their bayonet charge of an ambush as a policy. At the same time, Hoon announced that 40 Commando, Royal Marines, was being placed on notice to move. This may be more important, as one of the major moves under discussion was to send the Marines of 3 Commando Brigade to the ex-Spanish sector. Alternatively, there was talk of sending a British-led NATO headquarters and one battalion to take charge. Either way, it appears that the government has been doing two things - haggling with the US about the role of any further forces, and less creditably attempting to put the movement off until after the elections. It is now said that the military are unhappy that this might mean going in after the handover deadline. Standing-to as many of the units involved now might well be a response to this concern. And, failing all else, they would at least serve as a reserve if the 30th of June turns out to be a black day...

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