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More British troops to be called for in Iraq
Updated: 2004-12-04 11:30

With British troops nearing the end of their mission in a US-controlled zone south of Baghdad, observers believe Washington will call again on its chief ally for reinforcements in the build-up to next month's crucial Iraqi elections.

"It is very likely we are going to see extra British soldiers sent to Iraq over the elections period," Charles Heyman, chief analyst at Britain's authoritative Jane's Defence Weekly, told AFP.

"When US forces are under pressure again, they are going to go straight to the UK and say we want your people as quickly as possible, and the UK will almost certainly deliver," he said.

An 850-strong British force, predominantly from Scotland's Black Watch regiment, began operations at Camp Dogwood, 20 miles (32 kilometres) south of Baghdad on November 3.

Britain has about 8,000 troops in the relatively tame southern Iraq, around Basra, compared to 138,000 US troops in the centre and north.

Major General Bill Rollo, the officer commanding British forces in Basra, said Tuesday that there would be more temporary redeployments like that of the Black Watch "as and when" required.

But some in Britain's military community have expressed concern that if more troops are sent further north in the build-up to the January 30 election, security and control could be jeopardised in British-occupied southern Iraq.

The British zone was already left "wide open" in November because no similar battalion to the Black Watch had been put on reserve in time for its deployment north, a former officer with the regiment said on condition of anonymity.

"The real question we have got to ask is: 'If British units are going to be deployed north, are they going to be overstretched in southern Iraq and are they going to have a reserve?'" the source said.

Heyman suggested that Britain will seek to solve this problem by keeping troop levels standard in southern Iraq and deploying any reinforcements to the US zone directly from home turf.

"We know that there are other troops on stand-by in the UK," he told AFP. "We know the spearhead battalions have been briefed for Iraq."

Despite high praise from a US commander this week, the Black Watch mission has not been without problems, especially for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, held responsible by some for fatalities at Camp Dogwood.

The announcement of the deployment caused an uproar in Britain, with many analysts accusing Blair of ordering the troop movement to help President George W. Bush a few days before the US election.

Blair's critics accuse him of sending troops into harm's way largely as a symbolic gesture to show that the United States is not fighting alone in Iraq.

At the regimental headquarters at Balhousie Castle in Perth, central Scotland, the regimental flag flies at half-mast out of respect for the five servicemen killed since the move in October.

"You can probably attribute the five fatalities that we had in that first week to the fact that the politicians and everyone was discussing it and telling the enemy exactly what we were doing," said the unnamed former Black Watch officer, who had experience in that theatre of operations.

"Blair made decisions for the sake of his political career which are to the detriment of the lives of the soldiers under his command," he said.

This view was shared by Bob Scott, whose 18-year-old grandson has been at Dogwood since shortly after the move was announced by Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon on October 21.

"In theory, Hoon and his ministry caused these deaths," said 61-year-old Scott.

"Hoon made such a hoo-ha of the announcement that every insurgent idiot in the area decided well we'll go down and have a go at the Black Watch," he said.

Although a 30-day period was mentioned when the Black Watch's deployment was originally announced -- a time-frame that would see the troops back in Basra by Friday -- the battalion is now expected back in Britain by Christmas.

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