October 26, 2004

October 26, 2004 | WebMemo on Europe

The British Iraq Troop Redeployment: Why It Is Necessary

Downing Street has confirmed that 850 British soldiers from the Black Watch regiment will be moved from southern Iraq to the Babil province, south of Baghdad.[1] The redeployment follows a request from U.S. commanders in Iraq for British forces to play a support role for American forces about to launch a major offensive to retake the insurgent-held city of Fallujah. The British troops will remain under the operational command of British generals but will coordinate their activity with the U.S. chain of command in the region.[2]The redeployment is a reflection of the great esteem in which British troops are held and the continuing strength of the Anglo-U.S. special relationship.  

The Controversy

The Government's decision to redeploy British soldiers to the Baghdad area has sparked a major political controversy in Britain. The move has been condemned by the leadership of Britain's third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, as well as by the left wing of the ruling Labour Party.

Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats, warned against Britain "allowing itself to be sucked further into the mire in Iraq."[3] He was joined in his condemnation of the redeployment by Robin Cook, former foreign secretary and an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq. In an article for the Guardian newspaper, Cook spoke of

…the suspicion that we sent a third of the British army into Iraq not in pursuit of our own national interests but in support of the White House's political agenda. This latest twist to the tale confirms the perception that it is Washington that calls the shots and Britain that jumps to attention. It is equally obvious that the request was the product of U.S. politics.[4]

Many of Cook's backbench colleagues in the Labour Party have echoed his concerns; indeed, 45 of them have called for a Commons vote on the redeployment.

Why Redeploy

Robin Cook's claim that the U.S. request to move British forces to the Sunni Triangle has more to do with the U.S. presidential election than with military necessity is not only preposterous but also deeply insulting to British forces in Iraq. The timing of the redeployment has everything to do with the January elections in Iraq, and nothing to do with the U.S. elections on November 2nd. Significantly, the matter of British troops being moved closer to Baghdad has not even registered as an issue in the American presidential race, despite the efforts of Mr. Cook and other antiwar MPs to present British Prime Minister Tony Blair as a subservient 'poodle' of President Bush.

The key reason for the redeployment of British forces is to free up U.S. Marine divisions for offensive operations against terrorists operating in Fallujah and surrounding Sunni-dominated cities in the region around Baghdad. Key goals of the U.S. operations will be the capture or elimination of Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the destruction of the Tawhid wal-Jihad group which he heads. Al-Zarqawi has pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and is responsible for the brutal kidnapping and murder of British hostage Kenneth Bigley, as well as numerous Western and Iraqi hostages. Al-Zarqawi and his followers are also responsible for a large number of suicide attacks in the Baghdad region and have claimed responsibility for the massacre of 50 Iraqi army recruits in northeastern Iraq.

In recent months, Al-Zarqawi's base, Fallujah, has become a mass transit camp and command center for hundreds, even thousands, of militants from across the Arab world, including Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Fallujah and its satellite towns are staging posts for terrorist activity across the Sunni areas of Iraq. Unless they are retaken, it will be impossible for the scourge of terrorism to be defeated in the country. The restoration of the rule of law in cities such as Fallujah is essential if national elections are to be held in Iraq in January.

The suggestion that British troops are being used as "political pawns"[5], as some Members of Parliament have alleged, does a huge disservice to the sacrifice, bravery, and professionalism of the British Army in Iraq. British soldiers are being sent to the most dangerous part of the country not as part of a "tawdry political deal" but because they have a track record of being among the best soldiers in the world.

The Black Watch has an illustrious reputation and was one of the greatest regiments in the history of the British Empire, seeing service in India, the Crimea, Burma, Egypt, South Africa, and West Africa. Its soldiers have won 14 Victoria Crosses and have fought bravely in many of the most important battles of the past two hundred years, from Waterloo in 1815 to the D-Day landings in 1944.[6] More recently, the Black Watch played a key role in freeing the city of Basra from Baathist tyranny in 2003.

The British Contribution

Great Britain made an outstanding contribution to the liberation of Iraq, sending 46,000 military personnel to the Gulf as part of the U.S.-led coalition-roughly a third of the country's armed forces. Over 8,000 British troops remain in Iraq, and British forces have maintained peace and security in the southern third of the country with outstanding success. They have performed a critically important role in laying the foundations of democracy in the Shia-dominated south, and the British sector of Iraq has been a role model for much of the country.

The British record in Iraq is one of which the British nation should be hugely proud, and the redeployment of British forces to the Baghdad area is a reflection of the great esteem in which the British Army is held. The repositioning of British forces alongside their American counterparts is an important reaffirmation of the Anglo-U.S. special relationship and the common cause in which Britain and America are joined: winning the war on terror.

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is Fellow in Anglo-American Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

[1] The redeployment includes 350 support personnel and will involve up to 50 Warrior armored vehicles.


[2] Statement of the UK Secretary of Defense Geoff Hoon to the House of Commons, October 21, 2004, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3763656.stm.


[3] UK "Has Duty to Redeploy Troops," BBC News Online, October 20, 2004, at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/3751794.stm.


[4] Robin Cook, "Deeper Into the Iraq Quagmire," The Guardian, October 22, 2004, at http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1333014,00.html.


[5] See "Labour Loyalists Grow Restless Amid Suspicions of Political Motives," The Guardian, October 21, 2004, at http://politics.guardian.co.uk/iraq/story/0,12956,1332114,00.html and Blair Is "Using Our Troops to Boost Bush," The Daily Telegraph, October 17, 2004, at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2004/10/17/ntroop17.xml.


[6] For further background on the Black Watch, see Thomas Harding, " A Reputation Forged in Heat of War," The Daily Telegraph, October 25, 2004.

About the Author

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D. Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom