Hundreds of British troops will be sent to Iraq next month, Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has announced, as the war against Islamic State enters a new phase.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr. Fallon says the British service personnel will be training Iraqi and Kurdish forces to fight Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) from January.
A small “force protection” deployment of combat-ready soldiers is also expected to be sent to defend the military training teams, who will be based at four centers inside Iraq, Mr. Fallon said.
The new mission represents the first significant deployment of ground force since the last British troops withdrew from Iraq three years ago.
The details are still to be finalized but Mr. Fallon told The Telegraph that the number of troops involved would be in “the very low hundreds”. At present, there are 50 British troops inside Iraq training local forces.
The announcement marks a new stage in Britain’s involvement in the fight against jihadists in Iraq and Syria. The RAF has conducted "a huge number" of air strikes against Islamic State, "second only to the United States, five times as many as France", Mr. Fallon said.
But the air strikes have forced Islamic State to change their tactics and lie low in towns, meaning the ground war must now be stepped up.
“The challenge now is that the air strikes have changed Isil’s patterns. They are not using large formations out in the open anymore,” he says. “They are increasingly tucked away in towns and villages. That means they have got to be rooted out by ground troops.
“This has to be done by an own-grown army, not by western groups.”
Iraqi forces lack the training, equipment and specialists they need to defeat the jihadists and this is where Britain will take the lead in January.
In particular, British experts will share their specialist knowledge of bomb disposal techniques, gained from years of experience of dealing with roadside devices in Afghanistan.
“Our role now, apart from the air strikes, is increasingly going to be on training,” he said. In particular, it will mean dealing with car and truck bombs, and roadside devices, as well as basic infantry skills.
“We have not finalised numbers yet - obviously we have got a lot of kit back from Afghanistan that we can make available - but we are talking very low hundreds.”
The training teams will be based in four “safe areas” – one in Kurdish territory and the other three nearer to Baghdad - these military trainers will also need to be protected.
"Our role now, apart from the air strikes, is increasingly going to be on training. Particularly, a key skill we are going to be helping with is counter-IED, particularly vehicle explosive devices which the Iraqi army hasn’t come across for some time, they don’t know how to handle, they haven’t got the kit or the bomb disposal people to deal with it.
"So the training we are going to be offering in January will be in infantry skills and some of the basics but particularly on how you deal with IEDs, given all the lessons we have learnt from Afghanistan. We are now looking to help them with that equipment and to run training with them in the four main training centers that the Americans are establishing."
A group of combat-ready soldiers in a so called “force protection” unit will also “probably” be British, Mr Fallon said. These soldiers will not be expected to fight a war but will be there to defend the British personnel if necessary.
“The trainers themselves will have to be protected but the training areas are not where the fighting is. They are in safe areas but obviously there’s always a small element of force protection.”
American commanders have said the coalition's training mission will involve about 1,500 soldiers from all countries in total.
Britain joined US-led air strikes earlier this year after the Commons voted in favour of raids on Islamic State targets in Iraq.
However, the UK has not joined America in bombing targets across the border in Syria, despite the fact that the government believes such action would be legal. Labor has so far declined to support military action in Syria and ministers do not want to risk a defeat in the Commons on military action.