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18 August 2014updated 23 Jul 2021 9:50am

Defence Secretary: the UK military could be involved in Iraq “for months”

The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon says that Britain’s role in Iraq has extended beyond humanitarian assistance.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Britain is stepping up its military campaign in Iraq to help its troops combat Islamic State (IS) militants. The Defence Secretary Michael Fallon told RAF personnel in a visit to the Akrotiri airbase in Cyprus that the UK’s military could be involved in missions in the country for “weeks and months”.

According to the Times, he said:

“This is not simply a humanitarian mission. We and other countries in Europe are determined to do what we can to help the government of Iraq combat this new and very extreme form of terrorism that Isil [the Islamic State] is promoting…

“This mission isn’t over. There may well now be in the next few weeks and months other ways that we may need to help save life, protect people. We are going to need all of you again and the surveillance you are able to give us.”

He revealed that British warplanes are being sent over to monitor the movements of and gather intelligence on the jihadists’ movements in the region. Fallon also added that four Chinook helicopters are on standby in case an airlift of displaced Yazidi people is needed.

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Rescue plans had hitherto been on hold, as the US claimed it found fewer trapped refugees than once feared, and David Cameron has until now been keen to focus on the UK’s humanitarian role in addressing the crisis.

However, Fallon’s comments suggest the increasingly direct military involvement of Britain in Iraq and come after the government considering arming Kurdish fighters, as well as the PM’s warning over the weekend that, “If we do not act to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement, it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain.”

Britain’s military involvement in any foreign crisis is a matter of acute sensitivity for politicians and voters alike, particularly in light of its mistakes in invading Iraq over a decade ago. It will take more than suggestions along the lines of “this time it’s different” to persuade MPs concerned about mission creep to accept Britain stepping up its role in the regions recent developments.

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On the other side of the debate, there are many who believe Britain should take more responsibility than it is currently by granting asylum to displaced Christians from Iraq. Chair of the defence select committee Rory Stewart told the BBC’s Today programme this morning that the PM may want to consider providing this asylum.

As Britain seems to be on the cusp of a big decision on a region whose modern history has so affected our leaders’ attitude to military intervention in foreign conflicts, Cameron will have to stop walking a tightrope between these two bodies of criticism.