msnbc.com news services
updated 10/21/2004 9:43:41 AM ET 2004-10-21T13:43:41

Britain agreed Thursday to meet a U.S. request to move British troops into volatile central Iraq to free up American forces for a stepped-up assault on insurgents, a proposal that has met strong opposition within the governing Labour Party.

Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon told lawmakers that military chiefs had concluded the level of risk to British soldiers was acceptable. The soldiers are moving from the relatively peaceful south to a zone where Sunni insurgents have been carrying out daily attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqis.

An armored battlegroup of 850 soldiers from the First Battalion Black Watch — complete with medics, signalers and engineers — will be redeployed for a “limited and specific period of time, lasting weeks rather than months” to relieve U.S. troops, Hoon said.

He did not say when the redeployment would begin and refused to give further details of the “location, duration or specifics of the mission” for security reasons. He said only that they would “deploy to an area within MNF (West)” — the western sector of the multinational force.

“After careful evaluation, the chiefs of staff have advised me that U.K. forces are able to undertake the proposed operation, that there is a compelling military operational justification for doing so, and that it entails a militarily acceptable level of risk for U.K. forces,” Hoon said in a statement to the House of Commons.

“Based on this military advice, the government has decided that we should accept the U.S. request for assistance,” Hoon added. “This deployment is a vital part of the process of creating the right conditions for the Iraqi elections to take place in January.”

He said there were no plans to raise British troop numbers within Iraq.

Additional troops?
The senior British commander in Iraq, however, said more British troops could be sent to the country to boost security ahead of the Iraqi elections.

“There may be a request to surge additional forces into Iraq in the run-up to the elections — that has been discussed,” Gen. John McColl was quoted as saying by The Times newspaper. “But it is no more than prudent planning at this stage.”

U.S. military commanders asked on Oct. 10 whether Britain would send a unit currently stationed in southern Iraq to the U.S.-controlled sector farther north.

British ministers said the move would free up American forces to intensify their attacks on insurgents as the coalition tries to stabilize Iraq ahead of elections in January.

But some lawmakers are deeply suspicious it is a political gesture to provide cover for President Bush in the closing days of the U.S. presidential race. Bush has faced repeated accusations from Democratic nominee John Kerry that America is going it alone in Iraq. Some suggest the redeployment would help him reassure voters that U.S. troops were not alone in Iraq’s most volatile areas.

Britain has some 9,000 troops in Iraq, operating in the relatively peaceful area around the southern port city of Basra. Sending British soldiers into the U.S.-controlled sector, where there are more attacks by insurgents, carries a risk of higher casualties and would be politically sensitive for Blair. Sixty-eight British soldiers have been killed in Iraq, compared with more than 1,000 U.S. troops.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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