BRITAIN is laying secret plans to maintain a permanent military presence
Ministers and military officials are in negotiations with their American
counterparts over the British contribution to the long-term effort to maintain
peace and stability in post-Saddam Iraq once the country is handed over to its
newly elected government.
The scale of the commitment is yet to be formally agreed, but defence
sources confirmed that it could see the UK maintaining a military base in south
Iraq, near Basra, which it currently controls, for years to come.
The news of the potential extended military posting in one of the world's most
dangerous trouble spots came as a commander admitted that British soldiers preparing
to deploy to lawless southern Afghanistan were "apprehensive" about
the threats they will face.
The Americans, who have yet to formally admit to concrete plans for long-term
military bases in Iraq once the new government has been established, are expected
to maintain at least one, much larger, facility near Baghdad. Critics claim
the negotiations are part of a long-term plan to maintain US control over Iraq
and its oil reserves, and to establish a valuable permanent presence in the
Details of the behind-the-scenes planning for the next phase of the Iraq operation
emerged amid escalating speculation that Coalition forces were on the verge
of a significant reduction in the thousands of troops currently occupying Iraq.
In the week that the death toll among UK troops in the country passed 100,
Foreign Secretary Jack Straw predicted "good news" regarding the 8,000-strong
force later this year. Reports from Tokyo later claimed that Japan had agreed
to drastically reduce its presence in Iraq during the first half of this year,
along with Britain, America and Australia, following a summit meeting in London
The MoD confirmed that the government still hopes to begin a significant withdrawal
this year, although the 4,000 leaving by May quoted in some reports is seen
as far too optimistic as the insurgency continues to disrupt everyday life in
the British zone. Military planners foresee a phased "return to barracks"
as a preliminary to a gradual reduction of forces during the year.
But even after significant numbers of troops have finally left Iraq, Britain
will retain a presence. One senior defence source confirmed that negotiations
with the Americans are ongoing, and that the MoD is actively considering the
option of withdrawing to a "non-urban location", which could be termed
as a base or a "training facility" with space for hundreds of troops.
Sir Tim Garden, a former assistant chief of the defence staff, said he expected
the British and Americans to remain in Iraq for many years. But he warned that
the government would be "foolish" to formalise its commitment into
a full-scale military base.
Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, which is preparing
to deploy to Afghanistan, said his troops were "apprehensive", but
well trained, equipped and prepared for the task ahead of them - and he was
confident that they had the capability to "operate freely" in Helmand